As we enter uncharted territory in the weeks to come regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, I am particularly concerned for our children and teens.
Regardless of how everything plays out, this is a traumatic time for all of us with schools being closed, gatherings suspended, and work interrupted. Our routines are shattered. While we as adults have hopefully been able to cultivate strategies and coping mechanisms for times like this, our children have not.
In fact, they are feeding off us as adults and watching to see our reactions to this event so they can formulate their own reactions. Now is the time to talk with your young person and help empower them through discussion, information, and empathy.
Keep in mind, a child’s brain is still developing, and won’t be completely formed until his or her early 20s. In fact, a teenager’s brain is still rather inwardly focused and self-centered because many don’t yet have the ability to fully think outside themselves to completely relate toward others. (If you’re a parent of a teen, you’re probably not surprised! And of course there are exceptions to this rule as some young people seem to be quite talented at the gift and skill of empathy.)
So at this moment, being forced to weigh the burden of the world AND process their place in it can be a hard thing for a young person.
I say this from experience. In the early to mid 90s, when the AIDS epidemic was still very new, I remember being terrified of contracting HIV and spreading it. How did I know about HIV as a child? I watched the nightly news with my parents, and I don’t ever remember them filtering those programs from me (and I’m glad they didn’t because I became an informed citizen of the world at an early age and a lover of facts and information).
But I never felt like I could talk about this issue with my parents — from the news programs we watched, I knew that HIV/AIDS was contracted through sex and from what I knew, sex wasn’t… something I was ready to talk about on my own. My own body was changing, and I couldn’t connect all the dots, no matter how thorough that awful girls-only body talk was we had in 5th grade. I was pretty convinced that I could catch HIV from kissing someone, and I looked at public restrooms warily.
My poor mom is probably reading this, sighing, and shaking her head at me! Who would have thought that I would have been so traumatized by something that I see now was so far removed from my reality? And keep in mind, I was a super outspoken, confident, opinionated child who talked openly about a lot of things with my parents. But for years, I carried a real fear of contracting HIV that was neither rational nor well-informed.
Your kiddo has picked up more than you think — and as a parent, or even a grandparent or guardian, it’s your job to talk with your young person and help them process these events.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make sure you have an actual conversation — a dialogue where your child is heard and listened to, NOT just talked at — and ways you can help alleviate any kind of trauma that may come as a result from the responses to this pandemic.
First, ask your child what he or she knows about what’s happening with the pandemic. This will help you gauge how much they’ve picked up already and what they need to know from you.
Second, correct any rumors or untrue information they have already gathered in. This will require that you make sure you are properly educated. Share only corroborated information from a reputable national news site, the CDC, or local health authorities. DO NOT SHARE WHAT YOUR COUSIN POSTED ON FACEBOOK. Just the facts here. Allow them to ask questions based on these facts. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” to a question, or to look up an answer together.
Third, ask them about their feelings, and make them name their feelings. “I’m OK,” or “it’s fine” are not naming feelings and in fact mask what’s really going on inside. Make them use words like scared, sad, confused, relieved, worried, anxious, nervous, or confident. And that it’s OK to experience more than one emotion (a child can be happy that school is out, but sad that they aren’t able to see their friends). Let them know that their feelings are valid and true — at this point, don’t try to redirect their emotions or feelings. If you do try to redirect emotions before they are done processing them, you tell your child that what they are experiencing is not real, when in fact our emotions are real and are worth experiencing at face value as we go through a tough time together.
Be honest about your feelings, as well. Don’t tell them “I’m not scared at all” and then open your trunk and pull out 10 cases of bottled water and 5 packs of toilet paper. Let them know the steps you are taking as a family to prepare for this event and WHY you are rationally doing these things. Don’t want to admit that you bought out WalMart’s supply of hand sanitizer? Then you may want to reconsider your actions yourself.
Let your child direct the “what if” statements. Don’t inundate them with fears about getting sick, hospital bed shortages, food running out, the savings account running low, or losing a job if they aren’t already thinking about those things. Save those adult conversations and personal fears for your spouse, significant other, peer, or parent in private moments. Don’t hide the truth, but don’t create new fears for your young person at this time. Readdress those fears when necessary.
At this point, continue the discussion. Let them know that something of this magnitude is a reminder of an ever-changing world, and as residents of such, we are asked to adapt in different ways. Some days these adaptations are more acute than others….imagine if in a week’s time we went from using DOS computers to using an iPhone11. That would be crazy! In some regards, we are asked right now to pursue some abrupt adaptations in our lives, and it’s OK that we struggle with those things.
Remind them of the constants — of God’s never-ending, unfailing love, and your love for them. Love never fails. Remind them of the helpers in the world, and be sure to point out more acts of kindness than of greed or stupidity. Remind them of tangible things they can take comfort in through this transition — a good hug, a teddy bear, a bracelet that reminds them of their faith, a song, or scripture verses that you memorize together.
As your discussion winds down, invite them to brainstorm with you ways to fruitfully pass the time in the coming weeks. How can you turn this potentially traumatic event into an adventure, a blessing, a gift? How can you turn this into a time of recalibration, renewal, and refocusing? How can you turn this into a time not just of social distancing, but of creative social connection? How can you have fun together?
Be sure to check back in. Don’t think that one conversation will make potential trauma go away. Consciously make yourself and your young person have more than one discussion about these issues. Current events can help you gauge the timeliness of these dialogues. Reassure the constants in your lives.
A word of caution here: Be discreet when sharing your criticisms and critiques of this event, and the way it is being handled by local, state, and national leaders, as well as by your bosses or your peers. Children parrot their parents. Trust me, teachers, youth leaders, and your child’s friends know way more about your personal life than you would ever believe. And I’m sure the message that eventually trickles our way is garbled and not quite what you’d like to be sending out.
Unfortunately, while you have been able to form opinions based on your personal experiences, convictions and hopefully cold, hard facts, your child hears your opinions and forms opinions based on opinions. When these opinions are shared with their peers, or others who have had different experiences, your child is often unable to defend their opinions or thoughts because they don’t have the rational facts and real experiences that it took to develop these opinions or thoughts. Your child is then left stripped of something they once had confidence in, you and your opinions, and that is an unfortunate casualty of misinformation.
Our unity as Americans, as citizens of the world, and as citizens of the Kingdom of God is important as we sacrifice to protect the weakest of us in this world. You can help remind your child that his or her actions in the present can and will make a difference for the future of the world and those who live in it. Empower your child through discussion and empathy, and help reduce the trauma through information and compassion.
Be well and stay well, friends!