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Talking to Your Kids about the Pandemic: Tips from Jefferson Family Medicine Physicians

August 10, 2020

Sometimes the simplest questions can be the most challenging to answer. This has proven to be true many times during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For family medicine physicians, such as Jefferson Health’s own Dr. Karen Dong, Dr. Leonard Ridilla, and Dr. Deborah Ubele, one of the most common questions they’ve heard recently is:

If it were your kid, what would you do?  

Many parents have struggled to navigate how to explain the pandemic to their children, as well as how to get them to follow the proper safety precautions. According to these doctors, there is no “one size fits all” answer. Not only will different things work for children at different ages, but different guidelines will work for different households – and that’s okay.

The most important thing you can do is provide reassurance of safety and a sense of normalcy, says Dr. Ubele. Luckily, her son is only a baby, so his day-to-day hasn’t significantly changed.

For Dr. Dong, however, having a son just a year and a half older makes a difference. In her household, they had to slowly introduce him to the idea of wearing a mask.

For toddlers, visual examples – such as photos of other kids wearing masks and placing a mask on toys – can comfort and encourage them.

Of course, having a fun design on the mask, such as a favorite cartoon character, is also helpful!

“While I can’t yet explain to him the importance of protecting other people, showing him how to wear his mask and stay socially-distanced from others has had an impact on his respect for peoples’ space,” explained Dr. Dong.

For children a few years older, remember, “less is more.”

Try to engage them in conversation by asking what’s on their mind, says Dr. Ubele.

Also, keep it age-appropriate and do not involve too many details, adds Dr. Dong. You just want to communicate the simplest way to stay safe.

Control is another beneficial focus point, continues Dr. Ubele. “Let them know they can control their health by washing their hands, wearing their mask, and keeping their distance. Plus, you can even teach them fun methods to do so.”

For middle-schoolers, you can go into slightly greater detail, and you should do your best to weed out any possible false information they may have heard.

This is the age for which you can stress the importance of doing your part to keep others safe, explains Dr. Ridilla. “It puts a positive angle on the conversation, rather than instilling fear. Even though this frightening virus exists, if we all work together, we can beat it.”

It’s also important to ask what they’ve heard about online and from friends, to determine whether it is true or false, says Dr. Dong. Also, if you don’t have the answers for some of their questions, admit it. It’s okay to let them know that some things are, unfortunately, unknown at the moment.

Keep in mind, getting some kids to open up can be difficult, and you should pay close attention to changes in behavior and body language to notice when something is upsetting them, says Dr. Ubele. They may avoid activities they once enjoyed or even exhibit physical symptoms, such as a stomachache.

For teenagers, these conversations may be difficult. While they have a firmer grasp on current events, they are often influenced by their friends.

“They’re in a phase of their development when their peers are their authority touchstones, rather than their parents,” said Dr. Dong. “Try to reference other sources of authority, such as their school or local government mandates.”

Dr. Ridilla, whose three children are now all in their 20s, has had significant experience with teenagers. He suggests providing concrete examples to them about what is safe to do and what isn’t.

“Encourage them to pick their friends wisely; they should avoid being around people who aren’t acting safe. It’s upsetting, because they just want to live normally, but reinforce that there are sacrifices that everyone has to make.”

For your children who are grown-up, remind them that they’re not invincible.

While young adults can logically understand their risk-level, they may feel like the virus could bring them no harm, explains Dr. Ridilla. “While they are at a lower risk for more severe complications caused by the virus, they could unintentionally pass it to a loved one. If this worse-case scenario were to happen, they would have to live with that guilt.”

As parents we can all empathize with each other, adds Dr. Ubele. What I’m experiencing with my baby, is a lot different than what others are experiencing with their pre-teens or teenagers, and vice-versa.

At the end of the day, it’s important to stick to your guidelines and stand by them together, as a family, says Dr. Dong. You don’t have to be fanatical, but you should be consistent and directive. Having a plan in place will save on a lot of anger and frustration.

Also, try as much as you can to keep the conversation ongoing. Having a talk once, doesn’t mean you don’t have to readdress it, says Dr. Ubele.

Just like adults, if kids don’t keep safety precautions top of mind, they’re likely to slip back into their old habits, adds Dr. Ridilla.

We say this seriously, because we are still in the midst of a pandemic, continues Dr. Dong. We need to be prepared to protect ourselves for several months to come.

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