From hurricanes and earthquakes to pandemics and terrorism, diseases and disasters are affecting families worldwide. What is the best way for parents to talk to their kids about it?
First of all, remain calm.
“Kids do best if their parents are calm and measured,” said Gene Beresin, Harvard Medical School Psychiatry Professor and Executive Director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital in a HuffPost article. “Anxiety is contagious, and when parents are fearful or bent out of shape, kids of all ages are going to pick up on that.”
The next step is to ask them what they know, before offering up your own thoughts. This allows them to tell you what they’ve heard first and give you an idea of how they are dealing with it. Plus, getting the worry off their little chests will help make them feel better.
Maui Health, which operates Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital along with island clinics, understands these are stressful times for you and your family.
Communication should be developmentally appropriate. For young children under 6 years of age, don’t volunteer too much information. Simply answer your child’s questions, reassure them, and give them hope.
“Distress and apprehension about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults. Think of how our children might feel,” says Dr. Ben Thompson, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Maui Memorial Medical Center. “Parents are the emotional and spiritual reservoirs for children. They will naturally be drawn to you for reassurance and information. Guarding their best interests requires taking difficult circumstances and focusing on the essentials. Then we have to present this information simply and in the least threatening manner. Our goal is to share fact-based information that allows for hope and comfort.”
More tips include emphasizing good hygiene, framing school closures as positive, limiting media exposure, sticking to routines, talking about community, looking for nonverbal cues such as depression, keeping their minds and bodies strong with positive activities, discussing plans, and including them in preparedness by allowing them to help you create emergency supply kits.
“One idea for having your children help plan and pack emergency supply kits is to make it a game – like a scavenger hunt,” says Thompson. “Don’t forget to check expiration dates and have kids help with remembering and doing that, too. The more you make it something regular and ordinary, the better.”
Most of all, keep talking. Reassure them that they are safe and that it is ok if they feel upset. And when you need to, tell them, “Mom and dad may not have all the information now, but we’ll let you know as soon as we do.”