On a recent call with fellow reporters in our newsroom, one of my colleagues had a personal question that she couldn’t shake: how should she explain to her children the inevitable unpredictability of returning to school? After months of being warned to stay six feet away from others and not to congregate indoors, they were suddenly being sent back to sit indoors in classrooms with peers they hadn’t been allowed to see for months. And, she feared, it was only a matter of time before a positive Covid-19 test or rise in community spread would send her kids back home for distance learning, possibly sparking anxiety and even more uncertainty in a year that has already been turned upside down for children nationwide.
I could relate. My own 4-year-old has recently ramped up his questioning about when the pandemic will end, especially as we get closer to the events he looks forward to all year: the holiday season and his birthday.
Experts say questions like these from kids are going to continue to challenge parents as the pandemic lingers and kids, like adults, experience ‘pandemic fatigue.’
“This is such a hard time for families and, particularly, families with young children,” said Susan Linn, a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and national advisory board member with the nonprofit Defending the Early Years. “Families are really struggling.” I asked Linn and another expert, Dr. Tia Kim, the vice president of education, research and impact at the Seattle-based Committee for Children, for advice on helping young kids understand and manage their feelings as they face frustration, changes in routines and uncertainty—with no apparent end in sight.
- Be honest: “It’s really important to be truthful and factual,” said Kim. “If you don’t have an answer to the question, it’s ok to say, ‘That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll try to find out for you.’’ For younger kids, such as those in preschool or kindergarten, Kim says to keep answers “short and simple.” Kids who are seven or eight can understand “a little more detail and nuance,” Kim said. If you do know the answers, it’s important to share them when developmentally appropriate, said Linn, because kids are likely to hear information about the pandemic from other kids or through media.
- Be transparent about what will happen, and what won’t: It’s clear by now that the pandemic will not be over by Christmas or early 2021. If kids ask, it’s important to tell them that, Linn said. Similarly, if routines are changing due to schools opening or closing, it’s important to tell kids exactly what will happen and why. If kids are heading back to school, talk to them well ahead of time and explain why that change is happening in language that assures kids that they will be safe. Linn suggests that could include: “The schools have worked hard to make it safe for you to go back to school now, so that’s why you’re able to go back.” It also is a good idea to warn kids that schools may close again if adults decide it is no longer safe to attend in person. The younger the child, however, the closer to an event that warning should come, Linn said.
- Share your own feelings, but with some restraint: Linn says it can be helpful for kids to hear their parents acknowledge they are frustrated with the situation, too. And Kim agrees that it’s good for parents to show “vulnerability.” But Kim also encourages parents to project safety and security when they speak to children about the coronavirus and other tough subjects. “If you’re nervous or scared or anxious about a topic, that will come through to a child,” Kim said. “Children definitely pick up on your cues.” Kids often mirror an adult’s reaction to a situation, she added, so checking heightened emotions or returning to a conversation when you are calm can make a big difference in how kids feel about that situation.
- Be a good listener: “It’s important to give kids an opportunity to talk about their feelings, and also to validate their feelings,” Linn said. “One of the things adults tend to do with children is minimize their feelings…if the child says, ‘I’m worried or scared,’ [you can say] ‘I know you’re worried. I’ll do everything I can to help you.’”
- Control what you can: Parents can’t control whether school is open for in person learning or how fast the pandemic ends, but they can keep “the structure and routine at home as stable as possible,” Kim said. Linn agrees that it’s important to help kids find things they can do in the midst of so many restrictions and pandemic fatigue. Parents can say, “’I know you’re tired of it, I’m tired of it. I really, really want this to go away,’” Linn said. “’Let’s think about some things we can do together that can be fun or will take our minds off of it.’”
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!
This story about talking to kids was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.