No school. No playdates. No camps. No pool outings. The world as kids know it has been thoroughly upended and they are justifiably anxious, whether they show it or not. It’s up to the adults in the room to get them to open up about those feelings so that they can be addressed. Doing so takes finesse, curiosity, and a very light touch.
“Our job as parents isn’t to provide certainty in a time of uncertainty. Our job is to help kids tolerate the uncertainty,” explains Dr. Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
Kids aren’t stupid. Nor are they obtuse. They hear you discussing the increasingly dire COVID-19 news, they see headlines on your social media feed, and they understand that to a large extent, the stuff they once enjoyed doing is no longer in play. Playing epidemiologist isn’t going to work. Kids don’t need specific answers, they need broader certitude that they are loved and will be taken care of — certitude that makes the ambiguity of the moment manageable.
“We want to teach them how to tolerate not knowing. You should let them explain how they’re feeling and why, and you can help them validate those feeling by saying things like, ‘I have similar worries. Let’s brainstorm ideas on how we can make things better.’ Instead of just giving answers, you want to have a conversation and compare notes,” says Bubrick.
Getting kids, regardless of age, involved in problem-solving makes them feel empowered and like they’re part of the solution. But as Bubrick points out, if you ask vague questions, you’ll get vague answers, including the dreaded “I’m fine” (the quintessential conversational dead end). Bubrick’s advice is to lead with curiosity and ask open-ended yet specific questions:
- What did you learn about today?
- What is something interesting or funny you heard about today?
- What was the most fun thing you did today?
- What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?
- What was the toughest part of your day today?
- What was something you didn’t like about your day?
- What got in the way today of you having a fun day?
- What can we do together to make it better?
- I read something interesting today and wanted to know if you had a reaction to it?
As with most things in life, timing is everything.
“Bedtime is not the right time. Kids are starting to wind down for the day. Anxious kids have more worries at night. Don’t lead them down the path of more worry. And don’t talk to them about this when they first wake up. Find a time, a neutral time, when there hasn’t been a big argument. Look for a calm moment,” says Bubrick.
He suggests having laid-back discussions either during dinner, or while taking a family walk. And he relies on a simple yet clever approach that gets people to open up.
“With my kids, I suggest a game: Like a rose. It’s an icebreaker and it’s our thing. You start and model the game. There are three components to the rose. The petal: ‘Tell me something you liked about today.’ The thorn: ‘Tell me something you didn’t like.’ The bud: ‘Tell me something you’re looking forward to in the future.’ You have to model it to get a response.”
If your children aren’t able to articulate how they’re feeling, use a feelings chart and work your way from there. Some 5-year-olds can explain, with total clarity, what upended their emotions and why. Some teens, meanwhile, can barely manage a two-word response and won’t dig deeper without gentle prodding. You want to have children be as specific as possible about what exactly they’re feeling.
“If you can name it, you can tame it,” says Bubrick.
His final note is just as applicable to kids as to their adult minders. Don’t spin out. Don’t catastrophize. And remind kids that no, their friends aren’t having secret sleepovers or hitting the playground. We’re all stuck at home together.
“We want to help kids stay in the moment. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the unknown. All we know is what’s happening to us right now. We have each other. We’re connected to our friends. Let’s focus on that. We’ll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow,” he says.