A global pandemic. Lives and jobs lost. Schools closed. Routines disrupted. For many families, 2020 will be remembered as the year their world was turned upside down and inside out, thanks to the coronavirus. You’re feeling anxious? Imagine how your kids must feel, with their limited understanding of the world around them and their still-developing ability to appropriately express emotions. They may not show it, but your kids are very tuned into your emotional state and are taking their cues from you.
In a webinar hosted recently by the Community Health team at Baptist Health South Florida, psychologist Ana A. Rivas-Vazquez, Ph.D., offered valuable tips on how to talk to your children about the difficult issues you may be facing as a family.
“Children are very perceptive and they’re very focused on what mommy and daddy are thinking. Even infants can sense stress, anger and anxiety,” said Dr. Rivas-Vazquez, who serves as chief wellness officer at Baptist Hospital and has counseled people of all ages. Effective communication is key to calming fears, she said.
First and foremost? “Listen, listen, listen,” advised Dr. Rivas-Vazquez. “Listen to your child’s feelings rather than controlling the conversation yourself, and acknowledge your child’s perspective – even if it’s different than your own. Don’t be critical or judgmental of your child’s feelings or comments.” Listening to your child also shows emotional support, she said, which helps lessen their stress when coping with life challenges.
Talking to children about difficult issues also requires consideration of their age and their emotional development. “As parents, we need to understand not only where they are at emotionally, but also what they are really asking us,” Dr. Rivas-Vazquez said. “Children’s concerns are often very different from our own.”
What type of conversation you have with your child depends on their age and emotional maturity, Dr. Rivas-Vazquez explained. “How you talk to your toddler is very different than how you would talk to your teenager. A toddler doesn’t need complicated answers. Answer their questions in very simple terms, in a calm and reassuring manner, and if you don’t know something or don’t have an immediate answer, it’s okay to say so.” Honesty is also important, she said. “Children just want the truth – but they want it served up in a way they can comprehend.”
In addition to advice on how to talk to your children, Dr. Rivas-Vazquez offered a variety of coping strategies for families struggling to maintain normalcy with the pandemic:
- Focus on positive ways to cope
- Keep a normal routine
- Reduce and monitor media exposure
- Stay healthy and fit
- Keep a positive outlook
- Help others
- Be appreciative and give thanks
- Stay relaxed
- Cope appropriately with anger, fear, and sadness
- Plan family activities
- Stay connected with family and friends via Zoom
Limiting media exposure is especially important, said Dr. Rivas-Vazquez. “Every day, the news is filled with alarming stories and images that can make even the most well-adjusted adult anxious.” She advised keeping the news off when toddlers are around, and letting them watch TV only in the presence of an adult who can explain what they’re seeing.
With teenagers, watch the news with them and engage them by asking questions such as, “What have you heard about what’s going on?”or, “How do you feel about it?” Sharing your feelings or opinions with them honestly can also help them open up and express their own feelings, even if they’re different from yours. “Remember, though, that teenagers don’t like to be lectured,” Dr. Rivas-Vazquez said. “Let them know it’s okay to agree to disagree.”
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