How do you talk to your kids about a deadly pandemic?

OPINION: Last month, I was talking to my daughter about the tooth fairy. Now, I’m trying to figure out how what to tell my children about the coronavirus — and why their lives have changed
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Mar 30, 2020
Playgrounds in Toronto have been closed since March 25. (Starflamedia)

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A few days ago, I told my children we were going for a walk. We’d been in self-isolation for about a week, and, except for going to the park (before city parks were closed), we’d stayed indoors in our townhouse in the suburbs.

My son yelled no and said he didn’t want to go for a walk. I assumed that was because he didn’t want to stop playing video games (don’t judge me — I must work). I told him we needed to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. He started to shout and scream. I’d like to say that I was calm and collected, but I stomped my way to the basement and yelled back that we were going whether he liked it or not. What he said next stopped me in my tracks. 

He came upstairs and said, “But we’re going to catch the coronavirus.” His face was covered in tears.

It dawned on me that, a month ago, I’d been doing verbal gymnastics trying to explain to my youngest why the tooth fairy had forgotten to leave money under her pillow. Now, like most parents, I’m trying to figure out what to say to my kids about the coronavirus. So I turned to Ann Douglas, a health and parenting author, for some advice. 

“They need to know that they can turn to you for support and encouragement during a scary and uncertain time. They need to know that you will listen to them and that you’ll help them to make sense of everything that they are thinking and feeling,” says Douglas, whose most recent book is Happy Parents, Happy Kids. “And they need to know that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. In other words, they want you to be an emotional anchor for them in what feels like a really stormy sea.”

When my son had that reaction to going outside, I spoke to him about how we would be safe if we stayed far from other people. I felt terrible for not having been able to anticipate how he might be feeling. I was laser-focused on making sure the kids washed their hands, making sure they didn’t touch anything when we were outside. I’d failed to consider the kind of emotional and mental impact staying inside and not seeing his friends was having on him. 

Recently Kids Help Phone reported a 350 per cent increase in calls. The national hotline needs volunteers to handle the increase in traffic.

“Words they’re saying are ‘scared,’ ‘I’m afraid,’ ‘virus — what does that mean?’ Worried about their family, worried about their friends,” said president and CEO Katherine Hay in an interview with CityNews. “They’re at the start of an isolation period; that’s kind of scary for them. They don’t know what next week will look like for them.”

This past weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $7.5 million in funding for Kids Help Phone and addressed Canadian children. “I know this is tough. Not being able to see your friends at school, not being able to have your support network close by or do the things that keep you healthy,” he said. “It can take its toll. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to have tough days. But I want you to know that you’re not alone.”

Before COVID-19, there were about 28,000 children on wait-lists for mental-health services in Ontario. Because of the additional demands created by the pandemic, Children’s Mental Health Ontario is seeking additional support from the Ontario government.

Douglas says that that it’s important to be alert for warning signs that a child may be struggling. If a child changes their behaviour — say, an outgoing child becomes clingy and fearful — you should talk to them about what you’re noticing. And when you convey information about what’s happening in the world, you should consider your child’s age.

“If your child isn’t saying a word about everything that is happening, don’t be afraid to start a conversation out of fear that you might end up alarming your child. Odds are your child is already worried and quietly absorbing a lot of information,” says Douglas. “Even babies will pick up on the fact that something feels different right now. Not talking about what’s happening will make the situation even scarier for your child. They might say to themselves, ‘Wow, things are so bad and so scary that we can’t even talk about it.’ It’s much healthier to get your child’s worries out into the open so that you can work through them together and so that you can encourage your child to park some of those worries with you.”

Douglas advises that, during this time of physical distancing, families try to stick to their regular routines as much as possible and to make sure that everyone is getting enough sleep. When talking to teenagers, she says, it’s important to respect their understanding of what’s happening. 

“Teens hate to feel like they’re being talked down to or being treated like little kids,” she says. “A conversation about COVID-19 with a teen will be more about sharing information: finding out what your teen knows, addressing any worries and concerns, and helping your teen to come up with their own solutions to the biggest challenges they’re facing right now — like the challenges of social distancing.” .

Before March break, my son told me that his teacher had taught them about the coronavirus. He said that, on the playground, some of his friends had said they didn’t need to worry about it because it was only Chinese people who caught the virus. Parents have a way of thinking that their own children are the moons and the stars, but we must make sure that they aren’t and adding to the distress of others with misinformation and prejudice. We are all in this together.

According to Douglas, we should recognize that this will be a defining moment for all of us. 

“It’s okay to reach out to the village for support and to be the village for other families. We’ve never needed one another more, and we can find ways to express our support and caring in new and creative ways — ways that reflect the need for physical distancing,” she says. “Parenting is ultimately about empathy: recognizing that it’s hard to be the parent, and it’s hard to be the kid. And, right now, it’s even harder than usual. But we can get through these tough times, and so can our kids.”

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