The other day my 8-year-old daughter woke up sobbing from a nightmare in which her best friend died of COVID-19. My 11-year old keeps asking me lofty, nuanced questions about race and equality that I can’t always answer, and my playful toddler tries to yank my face mask off every chance he gets so he can see my smile. My kids are grappling with new routines, facing existential questions, and contemplating things far beyond their age. The answers to their questions seem more important than ever, but I don’t always know what to say. Most of the time I feel just as confused and curious as they are.
My kids also think every day is the weekend in the age of COVID. They don’t understand why I can’t play when they ask, and why I keep limiting their screen time when I’m constantly using my own phone or computer. They’re also new to seeing my husband and I argue, but with all of us cooped up in the house, tensions are running high in every corner. I know I’m not alone. So many parents are living this reality, like we are in the middle of a storm with our kids — home and safe, but surrounded by so much loss and fear.
We are a death-denying society, but the pandemic is forcing us all to confront bigger questions and bigger truths. Helping kids navigate these is no small feat, though. Dr. Jeffrey Olrick, author of The 6 Needs of Every Child, suggests that you treat children’s concerns seriously, and brainstorm practical solutions to their fears about the future, like who would take care of them if mom or dad got sick. “Emphasizing that you and other loved ones are there to help with hard things will give children a foundation of security in the world, no matter what comes,” says Olrick.
Having these conversations might feel overwhelming for stressed-out parents. I know that I’m frequently irritable, working nonstop in a circus of a household — with cats and toddlers underfoot, moody preteen daughters, and two energetic puppies we thought seemed like a good quarantine idea. The other morning, when I snapped at one of the kids for the millionth time, I stopped what I was doing and took a deep breath. Sometimes I forget how hard this is on them too, and that even when I’m busy I need to make time to help my kids feel grounded.
“It’s important to remember that kids often take their cues from parents and caregivers,” says Lesli A. Johnson, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist. “When talking with children about big life events, it’s important to use age-appropriate language and to be as self-regulated as possible. Let your child express whatever feelings they have and validate their experience.” Acknowledging the grief we are all feeling right now is important, and that goes for our kids as well. They have lost their routines, their friends, their summer plans. They are growing up in an age of uncertainty. They are watching their households go through an enormous transition. Validating these losses will help them move through them.
And the way we model having conversations about these big topics will give our children a foundation for how to handle stress later in life. As a grief expert myself, and the author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, I feel like I’m supposed to have this stuff dialed in but it’s just not always easy to look into an 8-year-old’s eyes and try to explain why so many people in the world are sick and dying. What I do know is that avoiding their questions and feelings can ultimately make things worse. When we push away grief, sadness, and fear we almost always see it manifest in anger and anxiety.
Here are some more tips I’ve come up with for handling all the big questions that are surfacing for your kids (and mine) these days.
It’s OK to say 'I don’t know.'
As parents, we have a habit of shutting down uncomfortable conversations, especially when we don’t have all the answers. But it’s important to remember that you can admit to not having all the answers. What’s vital is that you allow for the conversation itself. If you’re unsure of the answer, use the age-old therapist trick and turn the question around on them. Try things like, “I don’t know… what do you think?” or “Why is that question coming up for you?” These are terrific ways to get conversation flowing and build on what kids need more than anything — permission to talk about everything they are feeling.
Help children name their grief.
Often we are reluctant to admit that our children (and ourselves) are struggling. Help kids accept the fact that they are sad and encourage them to find words to name their feelings. Ask them about the things they miss like classmates, teachers, and birthday parties, and then let them grieve, even if it is uncomfortable for you. Try to embrace their sadness, knowing it is temporary. When they are allowed these feelings, it validates their experience and helps them move through it.
Anger and anxiety are normal.
Underneath anger and anxiety is almost always a sense of powerlessness. When kids get angry or are feeling anxious, help them feel it in their body. Teach them simple relaxation skills like deep breathing and yoga to bring them into the present moment and calm their emotions. We also need to reassure our kids, and ourselves, that this situation is temporary, that they are safe, and that we will eventually return to a more familiar way of life. Here is a list of 10 breathing exercises specifically for kids grappling with anger and anxiety. Even Elmo can show your kids how to belly breathe.
Give kids power and responsibility.
Work with your kids to give them things they can control and be in charge of. Get a new pet, co-create a daily schedule, or help them choose chores and the timing of daily activities. (Just don’t let them take over your grocery list or Amazon cart.) Letting kids be in charge of things can give them a renewed sense of control in a time when they feel powerless. They may still grapple with feelings of helplessness that come with facing existential ideas about life, though. Using techniques of mindfulness can help them keep from spinning out too far into these lofty places.
If you are struggling, your kids are bound to pick up on it. And it’s not that you shouldn’t be having a hard time, but it’s important to seek support. Even Michelle Obama recently admitted that she’s been struggling with a low-grade depression due to the state of the world this year. Remember that you are so far from alone in this ordeal. It’s OK to be having a hard time and it’s more than OK to get help. Talk to your doctor, and check out the online therapy, books, and support groups that are available.
Dr. Jeffrey Olrick, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of The 6 Needs of Every Child
Lesli A. Johnson, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.