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  • Perhaps explaining COVID-19 to our children is not the first thing we need to do. Instead, maybe we should focus on some things that every child needs right now. Tweet This
  • So many children just don’t understand what is happening. They don’t understand why they’re missing out. And it’s even worse since most aren’t actually sick. Tweet This
  • Kids need to be heard, to have hope, to receive help, and to laugh, writes Justin Coulson. Tweet This

We’re living in unprecedented times. Offices are shut, streets are increasingly empty, and many people around the world have been commanded to lock themselves away, while others are doing so voluntarily. The uncertainty that we are grappling with is challenging enough for us as adults.

But it’s also hard on our children. School activities have been postponed, sports are off the table, and even playdates are increasingly frowned upon.

As adults we might be tempted to lecture our children, tell them we need to make sacrifices for the “common good,” or earnestly try to teach them what is going on. But such an approach may be unhelpful. Children who are lectured often feel dismissed. Their sassy responses and temper tantrums (or eye-rolling, depending on their age) highlight how they may feel misunderstood.

This is because it’s not just the cancelled event. It’s not just the stoppage of school and social activities. It’s the sudden unpredictability of life. So many of our children just don’t understand what is happening. They don’t understand why they’re missing out. And it’s even worse since they aren’t actually sick (and for most of them, neither is anyone they know)!

Even for adults, it’s a little bit hard to grasp. Most of us acknowledge that we have to work hard at “flattening the curve.” We get that we need to protect others who may be more at risk than ourselves. It’s a hard thing to explain to our children.

But perhaps explaining COVID-19 to our children is not the first thing we need to do. Perhaps that might come later.

Instead, maybe we should focus on some things that every child needs right now—not just to feel safe, but to feel understood.

Children Need to Feel Heard 

 In my book, 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know, I describe the three E’s of Effective Discipline. They are Explore, Explain, Empower.

When we explore, we give our children the opportunity to be heard. We lean in to their challenges, grievances, and fears. When they explode with cabin fever, we get curious, not furious.

We do this by saying, “You seem to be really challenged by being stuck inside huh? It’s a really rough time.” Or perhaps, “You really hate the way we’re being told we can’t do what we want to do. It feels rotten.” Our focus is on understanding rather than reprimanding.

Once our children feel heard, they tend to be calmer. Until then, their emotions are high, which means that their intelligence is low. But now that they feel heard, their demeaner is milder. Now we can begin to Explain.

We might provide practical tips, such as “wash your hands.” We can Explain how germs travel and spread. Try this object lesson:

Put some pepper in a bowl of water. Have your child dip their finger into the pepper. When they pull their finger out, they’ll see pepper grains clinging to their skin. Then have them put soap on their finger and ask them to put it back in the water. They’ll see that the pepper races away from the soap. It’s fascinating to watch. Try it!

We can also talk to them about how many people’s lives could be at risk if we aren’t careful as a whole society. We could teach principles, so they understand that this pandemic is not about survival of the fittest but protection of the weakest.

Children Need Humor

Coronavirus seems to have spawned as many memes in a couple of months as all other world events have over the past decade! People are finding delightful ways to laugh, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Laughter is the best medicine. Dozens of research studies emphasize that humor – even the morbid kind – reduces stress and anxiety. Physiologically, humor stimulates our organs and reduces tension and stress. It boosts our immune system and relieves pain. Psychologically, it drops anxiety and alleviates depressed mood. It lessens stress. And humor makes our social interactions stronger.  

Children Need Help

One of the most concerning aspects of the pandemic and lockdown is the feelings of helplessness that we all feel, especially our children. But when our children help others, they feel empowered. They feel like they have agency. They sense that they can exert some control over their lives. This is a powerful antidote to anxiety and depression. Plus, research utilizing MRI technology shows that altruism activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex!

So, let them help. Brainstorm some ideas together. Can you drop a meal off to someone more at risk? Can you deliver toilet paper to the elderly in your neighborhood like so many children in neighborhoods around the country? Is there an acquaintance that is feeling lonely that could use a phone call? Can you sing with others in your neighborhood, from one balcony to another?

Children Need Hope

For many of us, this is a frightening time. Economically, it’s a breathtakingly brutal time. Jobs are being lost. Industries are closing. The dollar is tanking. And then there is the incalculable cost of people dying.

In spite of this, it is also a remarkably hopeful time. Right now, changes are happening that will make the world a better place. Right now, people are developing disruptive technology that will ultimately improve how we live on this planet. Right now, tens of thousands of people are working on solutions that will revolutionize some parts of how we live.

How will we respond? How can we share that with our children? Can we show our kids that even if our business crumbles, we won’t? Can we be resilient enough to stop asking “why me?” when things go wrong, and instead stand tall and say, “try me?”

These choices matter. Let’s stand tall, have hope, and set a resilient example for our children.

Remember that although a lot of things have been cancelled, life hasn’t.

Dr. Justin Coulson is a bestselling author, husband, and father of six. His latest book is 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know