The COVID-19 pandemic has caused daily life to change for millions of Americans, and we’re having difficult conversations – in our government, at work and around the dinner table. But how can we best talk with children about the coronavirus and the disruptions its causing?
Creighton communication studies associate professor Amanda Holman, PhD, researches difficult, challenging conversations within family structures and health communication. And, as a mother of two, she has her own personal experiences to draw on.
Holman theorizes this global pandemic will fundamentally change the way our society communicates. But, she adds, it also provides an opportunity for families to engage each other more deeply.
“COVID-19 and this shift in our culture and life is a good opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about difficult things,” Holman says. “It’s really hard to escape what’s going on, Why are Mom and Dad home? Why aren’t they (the children) in school?”
Here are some of her tips to properly communicate the seriousness of COVID-19 with children.
- Give accurate, age-appropriate information. “I know they are children, but they really are tiny humans, and they want to understand the world the same,” she says. That extends to terminology: For example, call it a virus, instead of a “bug,” which some children may confuse with insects. “Using clear, age-appropriate information and terminology is very important.”
- Practice empathy. Allowing yourself and your children to feel and express emotions is a big part of effectively communicating. “We’re feeling frustrated, sad and mad (about this situation), and so are kids,” Holman says. Think of all the activities and highlights of a child’s weekly routines that are no longer happening. “We can’t gloss over that loss,” she says. “Having emotions that aren’t happy are OK, and let’s get through them together.”
- Create connections through technology. Using technology to “visit” friends and family members can help ease anxiety around changes in routines, Holman says. “We can’t see grandma and grandpa, but let’s Facetime them,” she says. Also, it’s important for children to see their parents or guardians modeling this behavior – calling friends to check in, or following up with a family member – so they can understand how technology can bring people closer together, not farther apart.
- Screen time can be OK. “Parents tend to discount kids always on their phone, but this might be a good time to let them be on their screens,” Holman says. Managing screen time is important, but using a smartphone, tablet or computer may be a key way children or teenagers can reach out and connect with others, whether it’s via video call or Instagram.
- Be ready to have difficult conversations. It’s never easy to talk about topics such as sickness and death. But between overhearing news reports and grown-up conversations, children are learning about the destruction the coronavirus can cause. “Just be cognizant parents might get these questions now,” Holman says, drawing on questions she’s been asked about hospitalization and death from her own children.
- It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s figure it out.’ When listening to your child, be ready to hear their thoughts, feeling and emotions. And if you don’t know exactly how to answer a question, it’s totally acceptable to do some research before giving an answer, Holman says. “I’ve found in my research on adolescents, a parent who says something along the lines of ‘I don’t know about this, but I’m going to figure it out’ is a super high indicator of a competent communicator.”
- Point out the positive. Connecting our actions to results, like not going to school to keep each other safe, can help demonstrate why our life changes are so crucially important during this time. And highlighting examples of people helping others can be a bright spot to focus on. “Let’s lead with kindness,” Holman says.
- Give yourself grace. Working from home, helping teach and keeping a normal routine are difficult. (Not to mention, maintaining healthy habits such exercising, meditating or reading a book.) We can’t do everything, or possibly know the answer to every question. But give yourself, and your kids, grace during this time.
Having open and honest conversations among our families now can lead to positive changes in the future, Holman says.
“Hopefully, it will lead to more open and honest communication with our kids in the future,” she says.