Parenting in Worrisome TimesPosted March 16, 2020
by, Sarah Kern
I woke up this morning with a racing heart, feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. It took me a moment to get my bearings, figure out what the threat was that my body was responding to. I’ve dealt with my own serious health issues in the last year, and now a threat looms again. The news about coronavirus is rampant and inescapable. Events are being cancelled, travel restricted, and schools are closing. It’s hard to know how to process it all, how scared we should really be. The anxiety, too, is rampant. I see it on people’s faces — the twinge of panic in voices, the look of worry before they flip to a friendly smile. As parents, many of us are suffering, and it’s a painful (and anxiety-inducing) fact that anxiety trickles down to our kids. Even the youngest children are sensitive to the tones of our conversations, our body language, the way we may check out or detach to protect ourselves. While they may not understand exactly what is happening, they can understand that SOMETHING is happening.
What is our responsibility to ourselves and to our children in times like these? Depending on age, children will have questions. Honesty is important, as well as calmness and rationality. Preschool-aged children can understand that some people are getting sick from a new illness and that things might be a little bit different for awhile so more people don’t get sick. Language such as, “You’re safe” can be reassuring, as well as a focus on the fact that there are things we can do to help. This can alleviate some of the anxiety about the many things we can’t do. Following the experts’ advice is the place to start. Washing hands, sanitizing surfaces, and staying home whenever possible is essential. Even something as simple as wiping down my phone makes me feel a bit more in control. These things can help kids feel better too — it empowers them to know there are things they can do to be safe. We also have a responsibility to be vigilant about looking for signs of true anxiety disorders, both in ourselves and our children. If anxiety is disrupting functioning or affecting quality of life, it’s time to see a doctor or therapist.
This is also a time to take a closer look at the things unrelated to the virus that make us feel better. Maybe for you that means getting some exercise or calling a friend to chat. Maybe for your child it’s an uninterrupted LEGO playtime or a long walk outside. We all need breaks from social media and the news. There can be comfort in simple, routine things that are untouched by this situation — giving your child a bath, reading a favorite book together.
In times of mass upset, I’m reminded of advice from Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This advice comforts me as an adult, and it’s comforting to children, too. When you start to look for the helpers, they quickly appear. This morning I saw a post on a neighborhood facebook page offering to buy groceries for anyone who is in a high risk group. I see people making choices not for the good of themselves, but for the good of their communities — friends working from home, cancelling parties and play dates, staying home. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and that can feel scary, but the only way we’re going to get through this is together — even if we’re all six feet apart.