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Children’s Fears During These Times

As schools prepare to open amid COVID-19, children and parents nationwide are fearful of the disease and of infecting others. Although sheltering in place has been a time for families to create fond memories, it has allowed adult conversations and mass media to impact some of the youngest in our society. Parents have been forced to explain COVID-19, protestors, looters, racism, and black lives matter to toddlers, adolescents, and teens.

The mother of a two-year-old discovered her son copying a sign from a newspaper left on a coffee table. When she asked what he was doing he looked up and screamed, “All Lives Matter”. The message was a positive one, however, the two-year-old had no idea what it meant. Another mother found her son fighting with children at a playground because they were trying to remove his mask. He wanted to know why he had to wear one and why the other children were making fun of him. In normal times, parents explain, children accept and life goes on. These are not normal times. The more parents explain, the more questions children have – and mass media keeps on coming.

Today children as young as two see and hear fearful things they don’t understand. Many fail to share these fears, allowing imaginations to run wild. Psychologists and therapists report an increase in nightmares, noises under the bed, monsters in the closet, and hallucinations. The internet is full of articles describing how to talk to children about these troubling times – how to explain protestors, why racism matters, and the dangers of COVID-19. Although easily accessible and informative, each child is different. What is appropriate for one can increase fear in another, making your calm, understanding voice sound more like a coverup than a truthful explanation. Explaining major changes in routines, social distancing in camp, and at local pools and playgrounds can create more questions than answers.

Fear in children is not your fault and for most, not the fault of siblings. When you take a child to a protest or continually watch protests on television, you are exposing them to a whirlwind of knowledge many find hard to process. When they see everyone wearing a mask, nurses, and doctors wearing protective gear, and hear over and over again “wash your hands” and “don’t touch your face”, they can become confused.

Children as young as two can read emotions on adult faces long before they can verbalize or explain what they see. In a recent survey, The Brookings Institute found: “As more and more people are covering their faces in public it becomes difficult to read facial expressions and see people smile (or frown). While this may not pose challenges for adults, young children look for emotional cues from caregivers to interpret novel or potentially threatening situations. That is, children rely on their caregiver’s facial expressions and tone of voice to regulate their response toward people and new situations.”

What do you feel? How have the past few months affected you? Do you have fears, biases and concerns? Has what you’ve seen, heard, or participated in changed your beliefs? Beliefs you considered to be facts, assumed to be true, beliefs passed down to your children.

Things used to be easy. As parents you were prepared to explain why your child’s playmate has brown skin and where babies come from, you knew these questions were coming, yet responding to, “what’s racism?” with, “that’s when you don’t like someone because they are different” isn’t enough.  In a June 4, 2020 New York Times Article, adolescents and teens were invited to react to daily news prompts. They reported feeling, “grief, anger, fear and despair”.

So, how should you talk to your child? Begin by asking questions. Yes, asking questions affords you the opportunity to determine what the child is thinking, to assess how much they know, and what direction to take your conversation in. Trend toward open-ended questions and give them time to respond. Allow them to do the talking, whether it comes all at once, or in bits and pieces. Ask about friends, siblings, and other adults – what they saw, were told, or overheard. Ask if they have heard something on television or seen something they don’t understand. If you took them to a protest, purchased a mask for you or for them, or learned they were exposed to looting, ask if they understand what was happening and let them know it is ok to be afraid. Most importantly, listen.

Every parent wants their children to be happy, healthy, and safe in our ever-changing world. Yet, many conversations are hard to have; Improving Lives Counseling Services can help. Our team of trained, licensed counselors and therapists treat children, adolescents, teens, adults, and seniors in social-distancing individual, couples, family, group, and in video (teletherapy) sessions.