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Helping kids cope: Child psychologist advises parents to be honest and open

cartoon image of sad girl with teddy bear


In a time of uncertainty, parents can help their children to cope by being open and honest about their feelings – first with themselves, then with their children.

Children will pick up on and mirror the feelings and actions of their parents, and if parents are anxious or upset, it’s likely the kids will be too, says child psychologist Wendy Evers Gordon, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Upstate.

Parent should examine their own feelings and thoughts honestly first, then talk to their child in an age-appropriate way, she said.

Ask the child what he or she has heard, thinks and feels about the coronavirus outbreak, then answer the child as honestly as possible, trying not to scare the child. Be sure to share positive information as well.

Psychologist Wendy Evers Gordon, PhD, directs the Juvenile Trauma Clinic at Upstate. (photo by Jim Howe) Psychologist Wendy Evers Gordon, PhD, directs the Juvenile Trauma Clinic at Upstate. (photo by Jim Howe)

The parent can correct any misinformation the child has heard, such as maybe thinking that all old people who get the virus will die. The child might also think that “old” means any adult, or be scared of people wearing surgical masks.

The parent can explain that most people who get the virus will be sick for awhile but not die, and that while some older people will die, not all of them will, and that Grandma and Grandpa are staying home to stay healthy. Also, note that people in masks might not be sick but just trying to help prevent the spread of disease, the same reason schools are closed.

Let kids know that precautions you are taking are to stay healthy. You can make hand washing or coughing and sneezing into one’s elbow a game, trying not to be angry if the child takes a while to learn the new procedures.

“Let them know it is normal to feel angry or frustrated, that any of their feelings are OK,” Gordon said. Smaller children might be told that when they feel scared or uncomfortable, it is their brain helping them to remember to stay healthy and wash their hands, for example.

For teens, the anxiety might show that they care about what is happening and want everyone to stay healthy.

Parents should keep in mind that while all ages deal with low levels of anxiety and stress daily, the intense, chronic anxiety brought about by the unpredictability and restrictions of the virus outbreak can cause both kids and adults to act impulsively and less intelligently. It can also lead to behavioral problems, irritability, sleep problems and head and stomach aches.

Parents should pay attention to their own emotions first. “We are human and have the same feelings and maybe more awareness than younger kids,” she said, but kids will pick up on adults’ feelings and often act similarly.

So, parents can try to stay calm and manage their anxiety, perhaps through talking to a partner, friend or counselor. It often helps to take slow, deep breaths in through the nose, then exhale  slowly through pursed lips (for kids, too).

While it is a typical reaction to avoid discussing unpleasant things, that would not be helpful in this case for any but the youngest children, say those 3 and under, she said, since they have no awareness of the wider world.

Further, kids should not feel that talking about their worries to their parents is off limits, or they will either get information from other, often unreliable, sources or use their imaginations to figure things out, which can be terrifying.

There is no need to provide too much information or things the children can’t understand. The goal is an age-appropriate answer and to listen carefully to what they are asking. They should know you are a person they can come to with questions and that you will answer them honestly.

Tips for managing anxiety in children

Gordon offers the following advice to parents during the pandemic (she discusses the topic in more detail in this interview with Upstate's "HealthLink on Air"):

-- Limit access to TV and other mass media. Unlimited screen times will increase anxiety, and after awhile, anxiety takes over our brain. We all want information and updates, so for older kids and adults, may be two or three times a day is plenty, but leave several hours to relax before bedtime and try not to watch news of the outbreak around smaller children.

-- Remember that physical distancing does not mean emotional distancing. We all crave connections, so we should communicate with phone calls, texts, social media and letters, or perhaps talking through a glass door or window to someone.

-- Start a dialogue with your child: What have they heard? What do they wonder about? This allows parents to correct any inaccurate information and answer questions in an age-appropriate way.

-- Establish a routine as much as is possible, especially to keep up a semblance of the school week. This means regular times for sleep, meals, schoolwork and some sort of physical activity. Whatever predictability and routine that we can provide, even in a more confined and restricted way, are crucial in setting up a temporary normal situation and helping to decrease anxiety.

Upstate Health magazine cover for spring 2020, special coronavirus editionThis article is from the spring 2020 Upstate Health magazine, a special edition dealing with the coronavirus.