We’ve all had to adjust to and accept pandemic living. And while there’s no doubt that it’s been extremely rough on us, imagine what it’s been like for children.
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The running joke has always been how kids these days will never know how rough we had it. But honestly, kids are dealing with something that most of us have never dealt with right now. Walking uphill six miles in the snow or life without the internet doesn’t compare to the stress and uncertainty that come along with a pandemic. The least we can do is try to understand what they’re going through and help them cope during these chaotic times.
Sugarcoating won’t make things better
When it comes to addressing canceled trips, playdates and a drastically different summer overall, the key is to take a direct approach and not sugarcoat things. Kids are smart. So, give them a little credit during those tough parent-child conversations.
“The most important thing to remember when you’re talking to your child is that it’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. You need to be direct and to the point. Let them know the reason behind why they can’t do the things that they did before the coronavirus pandemic,” says pediatric psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD.
For example, Dr. Mudd says that it’s not enough to say, “Camp is canceled this year.” Your child is naturally going to want to know why they can’t go. She advises that you start the conversation by talking about the importance of social distancing and going from there.
Explain social distancing in a way that your child will understand
To help your child understand why being around a lot of people isn’t a good idea right now, she suggests an approach like this.
“Nearly all children can remember being sick at some point in their lives, and germs are something that most children can understand the concept of. Start a discussion with your child about how germs are very tiny and when they enter our bodies, they make us sick. Explain how the germs that cause COVID-19 don’t always make us feel sick, so someone could be sharing the germs and not know. This will help children understand why they can’t see their friends right now, why we have to practice socially distancing, and be physically distanced in public.”
Dr. Mudd stresses that it’s important to explain things in a kid-friendly way and convey that the goal of everything we’re doing is to protect ourselves and others from germs. This will help your child realize why they can’t be close to their friends and why plans and events have been canceled.
Make a game out of it
Physical distancing can be a difficult concept for some children to understand. Dr. Mudd recommends breaking things down visually and making your explanation fun.
“To explain how far six feet is, you can do an exercise at home, such as measuring six feet of string and make it a game with your child. Have your child guess how far six feet away is from you, and then see if they are correct with the string. This will help your child comprehend the six-feet rule. This will also help them realize why they can’t be close to their friends.”
You can also use items to illustrate how far six feet away really is. Use their toys, the length of a pet or even their favorite foods to show the distance (for example, six medium pizzas equal six feet).
Be your child’s role model
Kids notice everything. So, they’re bound to notice when people are too close or not wearing masks — and they won’t hesitate to let you and everyone else know about these violations. On the other hand, seeing others not following the rules might cause some frustration or influence your child in a negative way. To keep them from breaking good habits, Dr. Mudd says that you have to keep being a solid example for them.
“Children learn through modeling, they look to their parents for guidance on how to act at home, and in public. So, first and foremost, be a good role model. Wear your mask in public, socially distance around others, and stay at home as much as possible. If your child feels like everyone in your family is following the same guidelines, they’re more likely to follow them as well.”
What to say when your child realizes that others aren’t following social distancing protocols
If your child starts to express that it’s unfair that neighbors or even family members are allowed to have friends over or they don’t have to wear masks, Dr. Mudd says it’s still important to be direct with your response.
“The best way to address this with kids is to say something to the effect of, ‘I know other children may be allowed have friends over, but we don’t support social gatherings in our home. We’re currently following the experts, scientists and doctors, who want us to stay home and socially distance to stay safe.’ Keep your response direct, simple and not filled with a lot of emotional energy because kids will react to that — if you are anxious or upset, your child will mirror your emotional state.”
Dr. Mudd also stresses that while this conversation can be tough, it’s good for parents to focus on the positives.
“This pandemic is out of our control and our children are feeling that. When you explain the upside or benefits of what we’re doing, it can help children feel like they have more control over the situation. Remind your child they are part of the solution — by staying home, wearing a mask, and washing their hands — they are doing their part in stopping the spread of the virus.”
What you can do to help your child remember to not touch germy surfaces
It’s hard for little kids to resist touching things. They can’t help it. And while it might seem annoying, Dr. Mudd says it’s normal.
“Kids explore their world through touch. If you think about babies, they’re putting everything in their mouths and that’s how they explore the world around them. It’s developmentally appropriate.”
So, how do you help your child understand that they should avoid touching things in the age of the coronavirus? Again, Dr. Mudd suggests taking a realistic and creative approach.
“Children learn through play. We know avoiding the urge to touch your face is a hard thing for adults and children to do, as it happens unconsciously the majority of the time. So, get some face paint and make it a game. Put some paint on your face and some on your child’s face and say, ‘OK, after 10 minutes, we’re going to see who has touched their face the least.’ Then you can compare the amount of paint left when the time has ended. This can help a child see how often they’re touching their face.”
Should your child struggle with the concept of not touching things, their face or others, try not to get upset. If you respond angrily or anxiously, it will only make your child more anxious.
“If your child touches a toilet in a public space and you respond with a lot of anxiety and say something like ‘NO! Don’t touch it! That’s dangerous,’ your child is going to have a lot of anxiety. And with children, that anxiety often shows up as misbehavior. So remain calm and say something like, ‘Remember, right now we’re trying to stay away from germs and one of the things that we have to do is not touch toilets, if you feel like touching something, you can hold my hand,’ and end the conversation. This can be hard for parents, especially when they’re under a lot of stress and anxiety, but controlling responses to behavior is very important,” says Dr. Mudd.
How to help your child keep their fingers out of their mouth
Another thing that kids like to do — lick their fingers after those cheesy, gooey or icing-covered treats. Dr. Mudd explains that because of this, it’s important to reinforce hand washing. She says this can be done by washing your hands regularly in front of your child or by making hand washing more engaging. Let your child pick out their favorite soap at the store and play a song they love to make sure that they’re washing their hands long enough. You can even use a sticker chart and reward them when they wash their hands a certain number of times.
If your child just can’t seem to keep their hands out of their mouth, Dr. Mudd suggests giving them a fidget toy, telling them to sit on their hands, or teaching them something else that they can do instead of putting their fingers in their mouth.
How parents can cope with tantrums and meltdowns
The word “no” can often be the source of tears or tantrums. Dr. Mudd encourages parents to stay in a calm headspace and explore their child’s emotions in a curious nature when meltdowns arise.
“Young children can have big emotions when they’re upset and worried. The most important thing a parent can do is pause and acknowledge your child’s emotions with curiosity. If your child is having a tantrum, you can say ‘I see you stomping your feet, and it looks to me like you’re upset because we’re not able to go to the pool today.’ Children do not have the cognitive or verbal capacity to identify their emotions and they have big feelings in little bodies. Parents need to acknowledge what’s going on, be curious about how their child is feeling, and name what they’re feeling for them.”
Once you’ve identified the emotion, Dr. Mudd recommends steering your child towards something more positive. “Engage with your child, connect with them, and then redirect them towards a more positive behavior. You can say, ‘Although you’re upset that we can’t go to the pool, we can go play in the yard with the sprinkler.’ Just be consistent. Don’t mirror your child’s big emotion.”
Dr. Mudd says that anxiety in young children can manifest through tantrums, and disappointment can look like behavioral issues. This is why it’s important to talk through what your child might be experiencing. But if you feel like your child’s mood or personality has drastically changed, it might be time to speak with a doctor about how to help your child feel better during this time.