“I’m afraid I may die,” my 10-year-old son quietly told me last night when I asked him about coronavirus, commonly known as “coronavirus disease 2019” or “COVID-19.”
He went on to say, “I’m also afraid others might be hurt.”
Your kids may be more scared about coronavirus than you know. Along with calming them down and reassuring them, these conversations can serve as an opportunity to build resilience and problem-solving skills.
This five-step approach is science-backed and evidence-based, leveraging work by experts at Harvard and elsewhere:
1. Stop yourself and actively listen.
Our first instinct as parents is often to go into assurance mode. While this is important, don’t do this yet. Actively listen to your kids. Even if their concerns seem silly to your adult self, really listen. Imagine you were their age for a moment if you can.
2. Confirm to your kiddo that you heard them.
As you listen, validate your child’s emotion (empathy, not sympathy)—“Honey, I can understand how that is scary to you,” or “It makes sense you would feel this way.”
You aren’t agreeing with them, you’re just meeting them where they’re at. Studies have proven this can stop the fight-or-flight response in times of trauma.
You may have to repeat these first two steps a few times.
3. Confirm you will protect them and keep them safe.
First, ask your kids if they feel like you heard them. If not, keep repeating the first two steps. After this, confirm you will keep them safe and make sure they’re OK. After the empathy step, they can take this in and feel safer.
4. Ask your kiddos for reasonable ideas to prepare.
During this step, your kids will have lots of ideas. Your job is to say “OK” or “That’s an idea”—you aren’t grading them. If they’re stuck, you can offer ideas as a question—“What if we got another can of soup?”
Having your kids suggest ideas supports their ability to resolve future issues on their own.
5. Act on their ideas (and yours).
Write a list with your kids and follow through on the items you agree to. This may even turn what was formerly fear and panic into fun and pride. In this step, you’re demonstrating how they can rise above challenges and act.
While subtle, this approach builds more life skills for your child. They’re learning how to calm themselves, express their concerns, hear others, brainstorm, and take action to resolve issues. Great job, parents!
News stories and rumors are rampant right now about this virus—it’s one of those times when everyone has an opinion. You may end up going through these five steps a few times because of this, or even just the first two related to empathy.
To gain more facts as parents, we recommend your trusted medical professional or the CDC. If you catch yourself feeling panicked, do your best to identify your concerns. Giving them a name, color, and texture can help. When you define it, it doesn’t have the same power. Call a friend or seek out mental health support as you need, so you can be there for your kids.
Remember, as parents, we often jump into protector mode before empathy mode.
It’s a natural reaction but isn’t always the most useful in teaching skills to kids.
Do your best to remember to hear them first, and then confirm you understand them. In doing so, you will help build a lifelong coping skill pattern for them.
As my son and I finished our conversation, he was very excited about going shopping and getting a few extra cans of his favorite chicken noodle soup, making sure he knew where our board games were located.
Better yet—he was no longer afraid.
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.