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What Parents Should Consider When Talking to Preschoolers about Coronavirus

Children need us to explain why their worlds have flipped upside down. Explaining leads to understanding and understanding leads to safety.

Leaving a child in the dark leaves a child feeling… well, alone in the dark. Scared.
Unsafe. Out of control.

And out of control feelings lead to out of control behavior.

Words and information from a loving trustworthy adult feel connecting and safe.

If you haven’t told your young child a story of how to explain the changes around her, she’s likely feeling this all the time: “Am I crazy? Am I wrong to be perceiving that everything has changed? Ahhhh this confusion and questioning myself is too much to manage, I wish someone would help me understand! My body feels like it’s on fire!”

When you talk to your child to explain the changes, your child will likely be saying this to herself after, “Ah! I knew it! I am a good feeler and perceiver of things around me. Ok, I’m so glad I understand now. I feel so much safer and much more in control. My body feels so much calmer now that I have a way to understand what’s happening.”

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

Now this will happen inside a child, but on the outside, your child will likely say this: “Ok, mom can I have my snack now?” So, if you haven’t provided a story for your child, consider it. Think about whether it might help your child feel and act more in control.

What should we be sharing about the current pandemic with our youngest children?

Here’s a story to share with your child to explain Coronavirus and this time:

“You’ve probably noticed lots of changes. Here’s why: there’s a germ like a cold and it’s very jumpy when people are close. So everyone is staying home because the germ can’t jump from house to house! This is why we are home, not going to swim, not seeing Grandpa. What do you think about that?”

Then pause.

What is going on inside a child and how will we be seeing it outside?

What a child shows us through behavior is just the tip of an iceberg.

And we know, just like with icebergs, that a giant mass is underneath. And what’s underneath? A child’s internal experience, meaning his thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, and worries.

Children are, like us, sitting with changes and uncertainty. This makes their bodies feel uneasy and out of control. And how we act is a sign of how we feel: so when children feel out of control on the inside, they act out of control on the outside. This means tantrums, crying, and dysregulation.

Tantrums are not a sign that you’re doing anything wrong or that anything is wrong with your child. They are a sign of feelings that feel too big to manage. Children are also experiencing worry and fear –not necessarily specifically about coronavirus but about all the changes they’ve witnessed around them.

When children are worried and fearful on the inside, we see regression on the outside. Interestingly, regression is actually adaptive: think back to when our evolutionary system of attachment began. Perception of threat = greater need for parental protection. In a time of danger, a child should run back to his
parents, cling on, and hope that they will bring him into safety.

And now? We are living through a period of quarantine when it is clearly not safe to explore. It is actually adaptive, then, for children to regress to get their safety and dependency needs met.

Remember this: children don’t feel as safe as they did months ago. And that makes sense. We don’t feel as safe as we did months ago. Interpret your child’s dependent and dysregulated behaviors through this framework, and you’ll naturally start to soften and empathize more. And nothing communicates safety as much as connection and understanding.

We have had our kids at home for a very long time – this is a big percentage of their young lives. 

Soon, we will be asking our kids to explore again, in the midst of uncertainty.

We need to be compassionate and patient with ourselves and our kids about how big this transition is. We may be asking kids to go to daycare when their teachers are wearing masks; we may be asking our kids to stand further away from friends; we may be dealing with one set of rules and then a new one weeks later. There will be many transitions coming up, not just one, so let’s all keep this in mind.

We are entering into a stage where we will have to make many decisions.
With options comes anxiety.

I ask parents to connect to themselves and say, “There are no right ways to go about this transition. I’m going to do the best I can. I may not be able to have conviction in my decisions given I’ve never had to make decisions before while exiting out of quarantine during a pandemic. And just like I am going to try to direct patience and compassion towards myself, I will try to direct it out to my children too.”

We are grateful to clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy for providing a coaching session on this topic to Monti Kids subscribers and for sharing these words with us.

Dr. Becky specializes in parenting, managing anxiety, and building resilience. She received a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Dr. Becky maintains a private practice in midtown Manhattan, runs parenting groups and workshops, lectures on various mental health issues, and consults for organizations.
You can follow Dr Becky at @drbeckyathome.

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