Every morning, Ashley Niland’s 3-year-old daughter Mckenna wakes up asking the same question.
“Are the germs gone? Can I go back to school?”
And every night before bed, she asks another question.
“Will the germs be gone tomorrow?”
Niland, 35, a special education teacher, and her husband Jonathan, 40, of Attleboro are on the same page in terms of answering the questions Mckenna and her brother, Mason, 6, have about the ongoing shutdowns, social distancing and other protective measures brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. And they’re in the same boat as many other parents of young children who, nearly two months in, have to continue explaining why they can’t see loved ones, go to school or visit favorite places like playgrounds.
“I just told them that there are too many germs right now, and we don’t want to get sick or make other people sick,” she said via email.
Mason’s questions prompted the beginning of virus conversations in the Niland house.
“Mason heard about it at school before we had talked about it with him,” Niland said. “I answered any questions he had about it, with the exception of the grim details of death and (the) age brackets it affects most.”
“(He’s) been really good about understanding.”
But how do you try to explain to young children a world that adults are struggling to understand right now? And how do you do it in a way that helps them cope and feel protected, secure and safe, especially as the weeks of social distancing, masks and life in uncertain world drag on?
Ana Kamille Marcelo, assistant professor in the Frances L. Hiatt School of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, says it’s important to get a sense of what young children understand about the pandemic and what’s going on around them through questions to start discussions and keep them going.
“What do they know about the virus, what do they think social distancing means, and why are we being asked to social distance or wear masks in public?” Marcelo said in an email. “It is also important for parents and caregivers to follow their children’s lead — talk to them about the topic if they want to talk about it, but don’t force the subject if they do not seem to engage in this topic.”
For parents, it’s instinctual to try to protect children from pain, hurtful situations or negative emotions. But Marcelo says honest, factual discussions are necessary and can happen based on the child’s developmental stage.
“It is important to keep in mind that children are active participants in their development,” she said. “The kinds of conversations you will have with your child about the pandemic will depend on their developmental stage and their own individual characteristics.”
Specifically, Marcelo notes understanding how your child learns could help.
“If your child is more of a sensory learner, then it might be easier to use sensory means to explain information about the pandemic, such as the importance of protective behavior, like handwashing,” she said.
“One of the creative ways I’ve seen is to use pepper, water and soap to demonstrate why washing your hands can help protect us from the virus, which is represented by ground pepper in this exercise.”
She goes on to say that a little creativity, through storytelling, arts and crafts projects or pretend play can go a long way in helping children “deal with things they might not readily understand.” She provides examples, like a storybook written about COVID-19 by Manuela Molina, and free coloring books about the virus by St. Jude that are available for download, as possible ways to explain the pandemic.
“For younger children, play-based activities can also be a great way to explain to them what is going on with the world,” she said. “If your child uses play to make sense of this pandemic and its consequences, then parents and caregivers can follow their lead and help them with their play without taking over the play.”
Also, to abate fear of now-ubiquitous face masks, Marcelo suggests demonstrating their use and getting your child involved in creating your own, if you know how to sew, or designing your own.
What’s harder to explain and deal with could be children’s reactions to routines upended by the virus.
Niland said while she’s still teaching from home, her children aren’t going to school, seeing friends, having playdates or participating in sports and dance class.
“It makes me sad; I know they miss their friends and school. They are missing childhood,” she said. “I know we will get back to it, but having a kindergartener; there are a ton of school firsts he is missing out on.”
“They are handling it they best they can,” she said.
These types of routine disruptions, along with picking up on adult frustrations regarding work, unemployment, finances and other stressors amid the pandemic, can lead to negative behaviors like tantrums, Marcelo said.
“Even though children might not verbally express it, they are probably experiencing a lot of stress – they are experiencing a lot of disruption in their daily routines and had to abruptly change their routines,” Marcelo said. “We should be mindful of the ways we interpret our children’s disruptive behaviors because this could be a way for them to express the stress they are experiencing with the situation.”
She adds that it’s normal for all of us to feel stressed out at times and that teaching children different coping strategies, like how to share their feelings, can help.
“It is important for us to create a supportive environment where children can feel that they can express their thoughts, confusions, and emotions about what is going on around them,” Marcelo said. “I think it is also helpful for them to see their parents and caregivers expressing and talking about their feelings and talk about different ways to cope with this distressful situation.”
In addition, getting outside and using technology to keep in touch can be helpful. Niland says her children stay active outdoors and use devices to call friends and see their faces.
And as parents are taking on a lot during the pandemic, Marcelo says they shouldn’t forget to take care of themselves, too, for the benefit of all involved.
“Parents and caregivers need to also take care of themselves and prioritize their mental health,” she said. “This will help (them) to also provide support for their children’s mental health and well-being during these challenging times.”
Marcelo says that while the pandemic can be traumatic for children, whether they understand it fully or can explain how or why, children also possess the gift of resiliency.
“With a supportive environment, they can adapt to social isolation and whatsoever change that may happen as a result of the pandemic, she said. “As parents and caregivers, we can make sure to foster this resilience by having open and honest conversations and communication with our children that will allow them to freely express their feelings – especially negative emotions, stress, and frustration.”