I just spent four years writing a book about preparing for uncertainty, and never thought that within a week of its publication we’d all be faced with the greatest uncertainty we’ve known in our lifetimes. That said, my book Ready Or Not: Preparing Our Kids To Thrive In An Uncertain And Rapidly Changing World made the case that children are more resilient than we often allow — with schools across the globe closed and weekly routines upended, there's no better time to empower them to cope with the profound changes happening around them.
As a practicing clinical psychologist, I am used to seeing families in a tailspin, and the pandemic at hand is ultimately another challenge to grapple with, in addition to the other hurdles parents face each day. Along with all the physical precautions we have been advised to take to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, there are some psychological precautions I think we need to take both for ourselves and for our children.
Here’s a brief list of ways to stay informed, handle your kid’s questions, and not go down whatever your particular rabbit hole may be.
Advice For Those Parenting Through Coronavirus
Quiet down your limbic system. The part of the brain that gets flooded with fear. Try and move thinking back to your prefrontal cortex. It’s much better at assessment, critical thinking, and decision-making. Do this by continuing, or restarting that meditation practice — I like 10% Happier or Jon Kabat Zinn — it really does make a difference.
Get some form of physical exercise. Resuscitate that old bike or treadmill that’s become a piece of sculpture somewhere in your house. Run up and down stairs. Best of all, take a walk. It’s a two-fer if you can do it near green space: physical activity and the calming effect of nature.
Look for reliable, well-vetted sources of information. Do not overdo your relationship with media. You’ll know what you need if you check that reliable source once or twice a day.
There’s so much we still don’t know, but remember there is plenty we do know; keep your focus on what is known. Nothing cultivates anxiety and depression faster than a sense of helplessness. Make a list of what you can do and place it somewhere prominent — wash hands, wipe surfaces, avoid gatherings, et cetera. Read it a couple of times a day.
Do something that makes you feel proactive. I spent years under the control of severe panic disorder. My way out, in addition to therapy and medication, was to do something. That was the start of my writing career. Today, I’m making batches of hand sanitizer for my kids. Think about that project you’ve been putting off. If you have kids, and they’re old enough, do it together. Cooking was once that activity for my family. The kitchen torch ordered to make crème brulee remains in a cabinet, unused to this day, but it’s a good reminder that activity coupled with some enthusiasm dilutes feelings of helplessness.
Kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for as long as they have a calm and stable base — that means you.
Do have a plan. And another plan. In theater, the saying goes, you won’t succeed if you have a Plan B. In life at the moment, you will certainly need a Plan B. You can’t cover all bases, but you need to be flexible enough to cover a couple. Things that increase our sense of control and our sense of efficacy are protective. You’re unlikely to need a years' worth of toilet paper, but if you get sick, who is going to feed your kid, your partner, or your dog? Talk to a couple of good friends. Be explicit about how you will have each others' backs if need be.
We all have bias. Recognize what yours is. If you tend to catastrophize, bear that in mind. Talk back to your propensity: “Sorry, old friend, freaking out is just not going to do me any good.” If you tend to underestimate problems, pay attention to that as well. Ultimately, we will all need to trust our gut. Just be aware of what yours is. And no, this is not “fake news.” If that’s where your bias is taking you, you need a serious reset.
Advice For Talking To Your Kids About Coronavirus
Every piece written on how parents should talk to kids stresses the importance of maintaining a calm demeanor. If you can’t, please see the first suggestion above for adults. Freaking out? Lock yourself in the bathroom. Talk to a friend. Do some deep breathing. If you dump your anxiety on your kids, not only will they be scared, but, in addition to being scared, you will feel guilty. Kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for as long as they have a calm and stable base — that means you.
Kids have big ears. We’ve all been surprised by some “secret” they’ve picked up by listening to adult conversations when they seemed to be playing Legos or video games. Assume that your kid is hearing what you say to other adults, particularly if they sense distress.
Remember that kids at different ages understand things differently. A young child needs only the information he or she has asked for, or the items necessary for public-health measures. A friend whose 4 -year- old was upset because baseball practice was canceled framed it as “I know you’re upset but how great. We have even more time for vacation.” Acknowledge the feeling but also suggest the opportunity.
Talk to your child’s capacity. Elementary-school-aged kids are logical but can’t think abstractly, nor do they understand sarcasm or irony. No casual “well, if we don’t all die!” for this age group; they will take you literally. After about age 11, kids have a much better understanding of abstract ideas as well as sarcasm. Talk to their ability to think critically about the virus.
This crisis will end, as has every other pandemic, war, natural disaster. There will be a cost and we will emerge either more fragile or more robust.
Part of our job is unwinding fact from fiction and fear from data, and rejecting the relentlessly apocalyptic vision of the media. I’ve pushed the idea of including media literacy in every classroom for 30 years, and now is a great time to help older kids learn about various media agendas and manipulations ("How do you know this is true or not?"). Too much has been written without context. People die every day from illness, gunshot wounds, obesity, and so on. We can be dismissive toward known threats that are more dangerous by a magnitude, and panicked about uncertain threats. It's human nature. But teach your kid that not everything they hear is correct and that you will help them make sense of information. (For example, the daily death count in the news does not mean that everyone who gets COVID-19 will die, nor does it mean that everyone who is sick has COVID-19.)
Make sure you approximate normal life. Again, kids do well when they have a sense of stability. Make sure they sleep adequately, eat well, and get some physical exercise. One of the families I work with (a family of six) are practicing 10 minutes of deep breathing together before bedtime. It's a good skill that will be useful when this passes.
Most kids have the capacity to handle a dose of anxiety and uncomfortable feelings. Of course, our kids will experience some distress at this time. And, of course, we will do our best to keep them informed as appropriate. This crisis will end, as has every other pandemic, war, natural disaster. There will be a cost and we will emerge either more fragile or more robust. It is an opportunity for your children to learn that, with a stable base and your confidence, they can handle the anxieties that life is certain to bring.
Madeline Levine is a clinical psychologist and the author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.
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 of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.