April 22, 2020

‘Be honest about being worried’: 7 ways to reassure children during the coronavirus outbreak

The nonprofit Turnaround for Children offers resources for parents and caretakers as families adjust to the stresses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talking to children about the coronavirus: Stay calm but be honest. Human relationship has the power to relieve stress, promote resilience, and restore a young person’s sense of safety. Photo by David Benito/Getty Images

Remember a moment with your kids when something bad happened. Think about the first thing your child wanted to know. As they looked at your face, what did they want? They wanted to know if you were okay because they know that if you’re okay, they’ll be okay.

Today, the coronavirus is producing a lot of anxiety, worry, and stress for children and adults. This is no small thing. Stress gets under the skin and affects both our health and our emotions.

Humans have a stress response that is mediated by the hormone cortisol. When we experience stress, cortisol floods our bodies and our brain. This is the hormone that produces that well known feeling of fight, flight or freeze. In small doses, cortisol can be helpful; for example when we have to take a test or run a race or get out of the way of a bus. But in large, unrelenting amounts, it can be toxic, weakening our immune system and disrupting the development of the limbic system in the brain which regulates our emotions and houses working memory.

[Read more about Turnaround for Children, a 2018 Renewal Award finalist.]

But there is another hormone that is part of our stress response and that is oxytocin. Oxytocin hits the very same structures in the brain as cortisol but it produces feelings of love, trust, and safety. It protects against the damage done by overwhelming stress and heals. Think about all the children who derive their sense of safety from the adults in their lives, even when they are in very stressful situations. The hormone oxytocin helps us understand that there is actually a biologic basis for that feeling of safety.

This means that the most powerful tool that we as adults have to manage stress and to help our young people manage stress is the human relationship. Because relationships that are strong and trustful release the hormone oxytocin and oxytocin can restore a child’s sense of safety.

[Read more: COVID-19 resources from Turnaround for Children]

Here are 7 tips for adults to reassure children in this unsettling time:

1. Keep calm and be real

It’s not going to be easy to be cool today. Young people read adults well. They read their faces and emotions. Before you talk to a child or teenager, prepare yourself. Prepare so that you can be as calm, collected and confident as you can be. Know what you want to say. But most of all, be truthful and be authentic.

2. Initiate a conversation about coronavirus

Don’t wait for your kids to bring the subject of coronavirus up to you. Ask what your kids are feeling about the outbreak right now so you can respond to their concerns and their fears truthfully and assure them that you will create ongoing opportunities to talk and connect.

3. Be honest about being worried

Do tell them that you are worried, but at the same time convey why you believe it will be okay. You need to be convinced and convincing. Prepare them for the fact that this virus is going to be with us for a while, that lots of people are going to get sick, even die, or lose their jobs. Tell them it’s going to take time to produce a vaccine and medicines to fight it but that we will eventually come out of this.

4. Limit exposure to media

One of the things that we learned after the Sept. 11 attacks is that parents had to regulate the amount of time that children were looking at television news. Images of the hijacked airplanes hitting the towers were repeated over and over again, and had a re-traumatizing effect. From the perspective of dosage and stress response, we have to regulate children’s exposure to some of the frightening things that are being communicated in the media without enough context, and that includes via social media channels.

5. Give them the facts

Make sure to give young people factual information so that they know what is true from someone they trust, which may be very different from what they’re hearing from their peers, from the media or elsewhere.

6. Communicate often, at least once a day

Don’t be surprised if you hear the same questions, questions you’ve answered over and over again. Answer them patiently and completely.

7. Take care of yourself so you can care for others

Remember, you are the most important adult in their life. Taking care of yourself, including exercising, eating and sleeping well, and using reflective practices, such as meditation, will help you care for others.

You may have noticed that all seven of the recommendations revolve around one important biologic fact: the human relationship has the power to relieve stress, promote resilience, and restore a young person’s sense of safety. This needs to be our north star. This is what every adult should be guided by in their actions with family members and the young people in their lives throughout this time of crisis.

This post originally appeared on Turnaround for Children’s The 180 Blog. Donate to the nonprofit here.

By Pamela Cantor, M.D., and Kate Felsen

Turnaround for Children

Dr. Pamela Cantor is the founder of Turnaround for Children and its Senior Science Advisor. Dr. Cantor practiced child and adolescent psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma. She founded Turnaround for Children in 2002, after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on NYC schoolchildren. In schools with high concentrations of children growing up in poverty, she saw students deeply affected by the adverse circumstances in their everyday lives, teachers struggling to meet the variable and often intense needs of their students, and principals who were unable to build environments that were safe and supportive. She recognized that the research from the fields of developmental and learning science, adversity science and mental health on stress and the developing brain she had studied in medical school needed to be shared and translated for the systems that develop and educate our children.

Kate Felsen is an award-winning journalist and communications professional. She is president of Up Up Communications in New York City.