As COVID-19 continues to spread and more and more events get cancelled, your little one might start asking some tough questions. Explaining canceled activities to kids during this pandemic is touchy, and something most parents weren't prepared to do. It can be done, though; you just need to do it with a little grace, empathy, and patience.
Since COVID-19 is brand new, navigating the virus and how it's changing daily life is uncharted territory for everyone. Licensed professional counselor Lacey Fisher, LPC-S, RPT-S, tells Romper one of the first (and best) things parents can do is to "learn what [they] can about the virus from reputable sources so [they] can give [their kids] the most accurate and beneficial information" that's available. Once you're equipped with good info and are ready to explain the reasoning behind schedule changes and cancellations to your child, Stacy Baugh, LCSW, recommends sharing it in a constructive way. "Younger children will look to their parents to feel safe and secure," she says, so it's important to provide assurance that everything will be okay.
Even though it's a heavy topic to explain, psychologist Kristen Wynns, Ph.D., encourages parents to see the bright side of things. "Although it's stressful for adults to have cancellations and worry about the unknown, take advantage of the extra time at home to develop new family rituals, play games, or find other unique ways to get that desired quality time with your loved ones," she tells Romper. Still, in order to fully enjoy this new way of life, you have to first explain to your little why regular activities have been canceled. Here are 10 tips on how to do it in a caring and effective way.
1. Keep It Age Appropriate
One of the first things to focus on when explaining the situation to your child is whether or not it's age appropriate. To do this, Fisher recommends "using language that they can understand." For younger children, Dr. Wynns says "it's best to keep it short and sweet," but with elementary-age kids, she says "parents might educate [them] with more facts" about the virus and situation. One way to do this is by focusing the conversation around keeping them and their friends healthy during this time.
2. Be Open & Honest
How many times have you sat there in awe thinking about how you totally underestimated your kid's ability to understand what's going on? Little kids take in more than adults realize, so parents should keep this in mind when explaining why their friend's birthday party or soccer practice was canceled. Fisher says, "be open and honest about what is going on and why things are being canceled... [and] explain that this is temporary."
3. Encourage Questions & Dialogue
Little kids ask a lot of questions in general, but this is a scenario where parents should encourage them to ask as many of them as they'd like. Fisher says this will allow parents to "identify any misconceptions [their child has] and help reduce anxiety from things they may have overhead in the media or at school that might be inaccurate or very scary to them." Their questions will open up dialogue between the two of you so you can help them sort through their feelings that go beyond disappointment over a missed art class.
4. Validate Feelings
Chances are you sometimes need someone to tell you it's okay to feel a certain way, and your kids are no different. "It's very important to validate their feelings around this, whether it's anxiety, frustration or boredom so that they feel that you are a safe person to come to with these important questions," Fisher says. To do this, Baugh suggests "asking how they feel about cancellations and acknowledging their feelings are acceptable." Additionally, she says sharing your own similar feelings is also helpful and recommends "offering ideas for how to feel better like getting a hug, cuddling with a stuffed animal or taking a deep breath."
5. Manage Anxiety (Theirs & Your Own)
Anxiety can make grown ups and kids act much different than they would under normal circumstances, so in order to help your child manage their anxiety it's important for you to manage your own first. Parents "are the models of how to respond in situations such as these," Fisher explains, and kids will "take cues" from them "in deciding how to cope" with situations like this.
Once you feel like you have a good handle on your own anxiety, monitor and help manage your child's anxiety over schedule changes, disappointment, and the unknown. Baugh suggests parents "continue to provide consistent expectations, boundaries, and limits" because these things "promote a sense of security" and can help minimize feelings of anxiety.
6. Provide Reassurance
You could probably use some reassurance that everything will be okay right now, which means your child probably needs it even more. Explaining the health concerns behind canceled events may leave your child feeling scared for themselves. "A parent’s priority and job is to keep [their kids] safe," Baugh explains, and says parents need to reassure their little ones that they are "doing exactly that, keeping them safe."
Baugh suggests saying something like this:
“We have to take a break from going places with our friends like restaurants, indoor play gyms, school, and play dates until the germs go away and we can all be healthy together. We don’t know how long that will be but as soon as we can see friends again, I will let you know.”
7. Make Your Explanation Interactive
Germs are an abstract concept, so little kids may not entirely understand them. Baugh suggests teaching them about germs and how easily they spread through "a hands-on experiment" like the pepper/soap demonstration a teacher shared on social media. Baugh says, "This is an effective visual way for younger children to learn about washing hands" and gives parents a way to "explain in simple terms how germs spread."
8. Demonstrate Flexibility
If you like structure and schedules, this situation is probably extremely difficult for you as a parent, but it's important that you put on a brave face for your child. Your kiddo is more likely to roll with the punches if they see you doing the same. "If parents present the cancellations of events and changes to schedules as something [they] can manage (and something that may even sounds like fun) kids will remain calm," Baugh says.
9. Get Them Excited For Plan B
Before breaking the news to your child that their play date has been canceled, come up with a fun "Plan B" to get them excited for. Offer to make a pillow fort and watch a movie with their favorite snack, tell them they can blow bubbles inside the house, or offer to have a pillow fight. They may still be sad about their canceled event, but they will at least have something else to look forward to.
10. Use It As An Opportunity To Teach Bigger Lessons
No matter how much you try to limit your child's exposure to the media's coverage of the virus (and all three experts agree you should definitely be doing this), they might still pick up on things that don't reflect family values. Fisher suggests taking the opportunity to teach bigger lessons to your child as you're explaining the reason behind canceled events like reminding them that the virus " isn’t something that only happens to certain people" and it's no one's fault this is happening.
Explaining big topics to little kids is not easy. Parents have to decide how much information they want to expose their child to and figure out an effective way to do it. There is no perfect approach. The best thing you can do is help your kids feel loved, validated, and safe throughout the process.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all our Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here on this page, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.
Stacy Baugh, LCSW, Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator
Lacey Fisher, LPC-S, RPT-S, Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor, Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor, and Clinical Director of The Pregnancy and Postpartum Health Alliance