Speaking to Children About the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Elizabeth Wenger
Elizabeth Wenger is in her fourth year on the faculty at Providence and currently teaches 2nd grade. She has degrees from Arkansas Tech University and Liberty University, as well as a Certificate of Preschool from Liberty. She and her husband, Robert, have three children who have attended PCS since 2013.
Okay, friends. I’m going to admit something I am sure you all knew already: This is hard. Being an introvert, I thought the whole social distancing thing would be a breeze! I thoroughly enjoy my kiddos and am quite thrilled to be home with them. My husband has been working from home for a few weeks now, and it has been nice to be near him during the day. I don’t have to cancel any plans because I don’t have any. However, I miss my students terribly and wonder about how they are doing right now in this strange new “normal.”
My own children are in grades 12, 9, and 4. One thing I know from raising them and from studying early childhood development is that children thrive on routine (more so the younger they are). The COVID-19 pandemic has turned any routine our children may have had on its head. In many families, two parents are now working from home and attempting to run a school out of their kitchen (without the weeks/months of prep that would normally take place by parents who choose to homeschool). Some parents have lost their jobs and now have financial pressure added to the worry about either getting sick or causing someone else to become seriously ill. Everywhere a person looks there is a news story related to the novel coronavirus.
How are our children processing all of this?
As things were getting more Twilight Zone-esque, I decided to check in with my daughters about how they were feeling. There happened to be a certain nine-year-old riding in the car with me one day, so I took advantage of the opportunity to find out exactly what she was comprehending about any bits of news she happened to hear. Here are a couple of things she shared with me:
1) “We are staying home because we don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to get the virus!”
2) “The President made me feel better when he said we are going to be okay.”
Out of all the comments she surely heard about numbers of deaths, infections, hospitals not having enough room for patients, people losing jobs, etc., the thing that stuck out most to her was the positive statement. She heard a lot of hard truths about what is happening to people, but then there was hope. Those words, spoken with authority, were powerful in my child’s life. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
What about older children?
My older girls have been interesting to watch these past few weeks. One is naturally more of a homebody and has not seemed to have an issue with “social distancing”. The other has a bad case of cabin fever. I spoke with both of them to get more insight into what they and their peers are saying and thinking about COVID-19, and they both had the same general comments. They understand why we can’t be around other people right now. They don’t think the adults are being crazy, but they do miss their friends and have been “bored” without school and social activities. Fear was not one of their reactions. Part of this is likely due to the feeling of invincibility that is so common for teenagers (remember those days?).
But I strongly believe that the lack of negativity and fearful words in our home has made the difference.
Admittedly, I am a news junkie. Thankfully in recent years God has been working on my heart and showing me that I can get angry and feel exceptionally unloving toward my fellow man when I imbibe too much in this area, so I have cut back drastically. We rarely have the news on in our home. This does not mean that my husband and I live in ignorance, and certainly our oldest is keeping up more with current events now that she is 18 years old (18!), but we have chosen to do most of that away from little eyes and ears. (I really miss Tom Brokaw.)
We have had the television on more as of late to catch news conferences a few times a week and keep up with the daily changes in the world. This has created an opportunity for conversation with all three of our daughters, and to check in with them about any anxiety that could be creeping up. It also reminds us of the need for prayer. Our children know that no matter who has been placed in leadership of our school, city, state, or country, as Christ-followers we have been called to pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-4). As parents, we must use wisdom regarding what we allow to come out of our mouths about those placed in authority.
Fear and Peace cannot live in the same space.
Moms and Dads, we need to take a survey of our habits regarding this. Are there often scary conversations going on in the background of our homes? We cannot be quoting Isaiah (“Fear not for I am with you”) while fearfully talking about the state of the world. Fear and Peace cannot live in the same space. Children take things literally, so as parents we must always be mindful of this. Parenting is hard, y’all, and this is one area in which we need to ask God to help us do the best we can. Let the words that come out of our mouths be helpful for building others up (Ephesians 4:29).
Let’s revisit the first thing my youngest told me, about not wanting to get sick. No one wants this illness in their family, and I for one seriously do not want to get my nasal cavity swabbed. However, this was a moment to help her see that we have an amazing opportunity to honor others above ourselves by sacrificing our desires in order to protect other people who are vulnerable to this virus. Our children are taught daily in their classrooms to do this with their classmates, but how often is it put into practice with strangers? If we accentuate the positive, it pushes Fear away and gives Peace a chance to thrive. And guess what? Moms and Dads will feel the difference, too.
Now you may be thinking, “Elizabeth, that all sounds great on paper, but my child is throwing a fit on the floor and doesn’t care about the news right now.”
I hear you. We have all had some good days and some days when we would like to have a do-over. Our little ones have brains that are not developmentally ready to handle all this uncertainty. They desperately miss their normal routines and don’t always understand why we won’t let them go anywhere and are making them wash their hands every ten minutes. The way they show us these big feelings is through their behavior.
Young children can have tantrums over the strangest things and misbehave in other ways. Older children may have trouble sleeping, cry easily, or suddenly can’t possibly do their Latin (Lord, help me!). And teenagers…they are infamous for being mysterious creatures. They just want to see their friends, watch basketball, eat their normal food, and graduate! (My heart goes out to the class of 2020.) But, if we can reach back into our memories of those days that we somehow survived, we will recall that strange space of living in a grown body without the life experience of an adult.
So how should I speak to my children about the COVID-19 pandemic?
I do not pretend to be a parenting expert, but I can share a bit of the experience that I have gathered over the last 18 years.
- Communicate individually: If possible, have one-on-one time with each of your kids at least once a week, even if for only 15 minutes. This can be difficult with all the craziness, but it is even more important right now than ever.
- Try side-by-side: Believe it or not, teenagers actually do like to talk to their parents, but they can have a hard time starting a conversation. Here is a trick I have learned: don’t look them in the eye. At least, not always. The best conversations often happen during rides in the car, while walking together, or while doing an activity next to each other.
- Consider context: Try not to take your child’s horrid behavior personally. If your little one is having more temper tantrums than usual, take note of the differences in their routine. Are they eating differently? What about naps and bedtimes? Is there a lot of extra stimulation around them (more tv time, video games, music always playing, etc.)? I would not be surprised if these things are thrown off right now. Any kind of routine parents can stick to right now helps.
- Be truthful: Parents don’t have to share all of the scary details about the COVID-19 pandemic, but kids have a sixth sense about people straight-up lying to them. Instead, acknowledge that yes, someone you know could get sick. Then share the hope we have in Christ. God’s Word tells us we do not grieve like people who have no hope. What a comfort this is!
Finally, Moms and Dads, how are you feeling?
A little wobbly? Totally fine one day and the next you want to hide somewhere that is much further than 6 feet away from another person? Maybe that’s just me.
If you can relate, take those feelings that you have had years to figure out how to handle and imagine placing them on a child or teen. What would you have needed in that situation? I put my money on time with parents and loved ones. Which is perfect, because our Heavenly Father has given us an abundance of it!
He is Jehovah-Jireh, our Provider. He has known from the dawn of creation that this tiny little virus would be wreaking havoc, and here He is, meeting our needs before we knew we had them. We MUST share this with our children! It is absolutely non-negotiable that in our homes we have our sights set on the Creator. He is Jehovah-Rapha, our Great Physician. He is Jesus, name above all names. In that name there is no room for fear.
I leave you with these beautifully timeless words from C.S. Lewis, penned in Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little – a very, very little – better … It called out in a strong, sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them … But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.
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