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Helping Children Deal With Coronavirus Fears; Tips From a Child Therapist

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Published on July 8, 2020

How To Help Your Child Deal With Coronavirus Fears

Kids, and even young children, have picked up on the tension, seriousness and disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. They have felt it in their own lives with loss of social activities, limited access to friends and family, and no school. What can parents do to help their children better understand what is happening and why we had to stop doing normal activities such as seeing extended family and going to public places? How can kids manage their feelings of loss, fear and confusion?

MPN patient and author Ruth Fein sits down with child and adolescent therapist Dr. Sierra Wait, from ECS Psychological Services, to discuss ways to help kids process their feelings around confusing and troubling events, especially serious ones like the coronavirus pandemic. Watch as Dr. Wait, who specializes in children’s emotional health with a focus on trauma-informed care, explains how to navigate through changes or major challenges in a child’s life.

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Transcript | Helping Children Deal With Coronavirus Fears; Tips From a Child Therapist

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

 Ruth Fein:

I'm here with Dr. Sierra Wait, who is a therapist who specializes in children's emotional health. We've been talking about my new book, about how it can help kids deal with the coronavirus and other challenges happening around them. It doesn't matter if it's the coronavirus or demonstrations in the street or what they're seeing on television that's frightening. It's about tools to help them acknowledge their feelings, as well as share their feelings, so that, as we all need to, we deal with what's inside.

So Dr. Wait, how can parents and teachers, and even grandparents help children recognize and talk about their feelings around confusing and troubling events like we're talking about now, or actually any change or major challenge in their life?

Dr. Wait:

Yeah, that's a really good question. I think being really honest with kids. Kids often have a hard time recognizing their emotions. We're not born having the vocabulary to express our emotions, although we still express them. The classic example of the kid, who's got a tummy ache every time he has to get on the bus or do his math or something like that, so that kid might be experiencing some worry or some anxiety, but he thinks he has a stomach ache.

How Can I Manage My Child's Emotional Wellbeing During the Coronavirus Outbreak?

I think as parents and caregivers, we can learn to pick up on our kids' signs that they might be worrying or they might be sad or they might be angry or they might be tired or hungry and help them really recognize that, oh you have a tummy ache a lot of times you have to do math, I'm wondering if you're worrying about math. So really start to help them identify those symptoms in their body that are signs of they're having some big emotions. Then also opening up the floor for them to talk about their feelings, creating a very safe space for them to feel like they can share and be heard and let them know that it's okay to feel however they're feeling. It might not be okay to respond in a certain way, maybe slamming the door is not okay, but being angry is okay. Letting them know that it's okay to have those feelings and then really coaching them on what are healthy ways to express their feelings or manage their feelings.

I think that was your first question, right? Like how do we kind of get that conversation going around feelings?

Using Age Appropriate Language to Talk About Feelings

Ruth Fein:

What about the difference in age? We obviously are going to deal differently with a five year old and a 12 year old. How can you help anyone who's listening today know sort of where to begin and how to begin and how far to go?

Dr. Wait:

I do have a few thoughts. I think one is really answering their questions. Kids have a lot of questions and so not being afraid to answer their questions, and really in an age appropriate way. So one sign that I look for is when do they stop asking questions? So if you give them one answer, you know a twelve-year-old might have five more, a six or seven year old might say, okay and then go on their way and continue to play. So really taking, like you said, really following their lead and just answering the questions that they ask and letting them know that you're always there to answer more questions. You'll probably have to repeat yourself a bunch, kids tend to ask the same question over and over again, but it's part of how they process things.

I also think how you talk to them is really important. So if you're really worried about something and scared, they're going to pick up on that and they might internalize that and then become worried and scared about the topic. So making sure when you do have the conversation that it's a calm conversation and you know, if you're worried about something, it's okay to share that with them, but make it in a healthy way so that they know, okay, mom and dad, grandma, grandpa, we have feelings too. Yeah. I might be a little worried too. But just really kind of being aware of how your nonverbal behavior is communicating with them in addition to your verbal behavior.

I also think letting them know what's within their control. The coronavirus has shown us all that there's a lot, that's not in our control. So where can we gain control within that? Kids need that sense of control as well. So I'm giving them small choices or little things that they can do to stay safe and things like that.

Discussing Family Rules About Staying Safe and Social Distancing During COVID-19

Ruth Fein:

That's really helpful. One of the things that I think about is I think the reason that this whole conversation started was because adults were scared. All of us were frightened and not sure what was coming and how it was going to look. So there's no question that children picked up on that and initially, nobody was talking to them about it.

The one last question about that, and then we'll move on is, that what about as we start to move our communities open, people are using the term we're opening now, right? So there's an economic opening, obviously, which is the phase we're in now, but there's also that emotional opening and there's that day to day behavioral change. That again, it must be very confusing to children and they hear probably one message from people very close to them, perhaps their parents who are being very, very careful and asking them to be very careful. Then they see their neighbors across the street who necessarily who aren't necessarily being so careful and in fact, that's how the book story starts, that Aiden is looking out the window and friends of his across the street are playing basketball. He was already told he couldn't go outside to play. So give us a little insight on that.

Dr. Wait:

Yeah. I think it is confusing. One thing that comes to mind is this idea of, it's okay to express that maybe mom and dad don't know exactly what the right answer is. Mom and dad are also confused. I think we can acknowledge that to our kids that there isn't a clear answer of how this is going to play out and what we can do. Then if the parents are on the side of being a little bit more conservative, wearing the mask, following the policies in New York State, then we can just bring it back to that. You know, mom and dad feel like we need to do X, Y, and Z.

So, as long as we're acknowledging that, yes, we're confused too, but this is our decision, and this is why this is our decision. I think it's really important to explain the why behind the rules for kids. You know, they're curious, they want to know, if I have to wear a mask, I want to know why. Just like we do. I want to know why I have to and once I have that information, then I feel more comfortable doing that. I think kids are the same way.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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