Coronavirus: talking to children in times of uncertainty

Many children will be feeling a sense of uncertainty at the moment, particularly children who have already experienced adversity in their early years or those who are in any case vulnerable.

A few weeks into lockdown, with no certainty of when it will come to an end, the initial novelty of zoom parties and online exercise classes is starting to wane. Families will be beginning to feel the strain, especially those with no outdoor space. So how can parents and carers help their children to cope?

Keep a sense of structure and routine

  • Remind yourself and your children that the current situation will end. It won’t go on forever
  • Have a routine for yourself and your children, you might find having a timetable helps. It is important to get up on time – to have breakfast, to exercise, read and connect with friends online or by phone. For anxious children exercise is important – rhythmic skipping, jumping balancing, turn taking. And make sure you get outdoors too. The government allows for outside exercise, with even babies needing fresh air and the stimulation of sounds, smells and seeing things in the distance.
  • Spontaneity, joy and laughter are essential for children’s wellbeing. Chat and sing, play games and enjoy activities with your children.
  • Keep busy but also keep a quiet space for your child to retreat to. A bed sheet over some chairs will make a nice den to recuperate in when the ‘noise’ gets too much. 

Talk about feelings

  • Talk to your children about the virus. Use reputable sources for information. Don’t let news channels dominate your day or quickly switch them off when a child enters a room. Avoid lengthy conversations about worries, illness or dying even when it concerns people close to you – but neither should you keep this a secret either.
  • Open conversations in a gentle and age appropriate way, giving enough information and being open to their questions. You don’t have to have all the answers and that’s the same for a lot of things in life but what you do know is that many people get better and that countries are coming out of lockdown so we will too. Some people are dying but most often (not always) it is those that have underlying health conditions and very rarely are they children.
  • Explain that we need to stay home to keep everyone safe – and that we should be grateful to those who care for others even if they could get the infection. In life we have social responsibility too – we keep ourselves safe and we try hard to help keep others safe too. The same principles apply to teenagers, but you need to be aware that they may be getting more information from peers or the internet. Ask them what they have heard. Tell them you are anxious too and share which strategies you have to keep anxiety at bay.
  • Children have different temperaments, and some are just more reflective and/or anxious. They may show their anxiety in their behaviors or try to hide their anxiety. Children who have already suffered adversity may need more care and attention to make sure that they feel able to talk and engage in activities. They should have the opportunity to have quiet time but it is important that it doesn’t become a space for solitude and worry. You know your child – watch for unusual behaviors and if you are concerned seek help.

Look after your own wellbeing

  • It may be difficult for you if you are very anxious or have a very anxious child. Talk to someone. This might be someone close to you or a more neutral person. If that doesn’t work then ask for help. There are plenty of helplines available and Young Minds will help you find a range. Don’t suffer in silence if your anxiety is affecting your ability to care for your children or your relationships at home are suffering.
  • Make sure you also have quiet spot for yourself to retreat into your thoughts while the television keeps everyone occupied for a while.

Children should now be back at school after the Easter holidays and many will be starting to feel the absence. You will want to keep them occupied, to expose them and react to news in a balanced way. Help them to understand that despite the uncertainty, the world’s expertise is working on cures and solutions – no one is to blame, no one country, but we all have to keep each other safe.

Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent is an educational psychologist. Her work has included the management of Coram’s therapists and family support workers who continue to deliver to a range of children and families during this time of unprecedented social isolation.


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