With news about COVID-19 dominating the media and our daily lives changing significantly and rapidly to combat the pandemic, it’s no surprise that many children are feeling uncertain, anxious or frightened. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that we’re there for our children to help them through this period of uncertainty.
One way to be there for our children is to talk to them. It’s important that we help them make sense of what they’re seeing, hearing and experiencing, that we can answer their questions and clarify any misunderstandings to help them understand, alleviate some of their fears, help them cope with the evolving situation, and reassure them that they’re not alone. We know it can be challenging to know what to say and how to say it, so Behaviour Help has put together some helpful information to direct your conversations with your child using the acronym TALKING.
T – Talk using a calm, confident and reassuring tone
When we talk to our children about a challenging topic, it’s important that we use a calm, confident and reassuring tone to help them feel safe and secure, which can ultimately help ease their distress. This is known as “emotional contagion”, which means that we catch and empathise with each other’s emotions. You might have had experiences before where you’re in a happy mood, but someone else’s sad and pessimistic demeaner rubs off on you and brings you down. Similarly, if we stay calm in body and voice, we can help those around us to feel less distressed.
The ways COVID-19 has changed our lives can leave us feeling stressed and anxious as well, so it can be difficult for us to stay calm. Try taking some deep breaths or counting to 10 to calm yourself down before talking to your child.
We need to look after our own happiness, health and well-being in order to be there for our children.
A – Acknowledge, validate and deal with emotions
Many children are struggling with having to stay at home, stop seeing their friends, be aware of social distancing, and so on, and it can be challenging to help them through these feelings on top of all the stressors that we are experiencing.
To help our children manage their emotions, we need to remember that everyone responds to stress in unique and varied ways, such as confusion, sadness, frustration, worry, stress, boredom or fear. We can help our children label what they’re feeling, identify what’s making them feel that way, and what they can do to address their feelings. “Name it – Claim it – Tame it” is a useful process we can use:
- Name it – It’s important for all of us that we can communicate our feelings. Naming our feelings is the first critical step to regulating them.
- Claim it – We need to help our children accept what they’re feeling without judging themselves. Teach them that it’s ok to feel sad, disappointed and angry when their birthday party has to be cancelled. Empathise with them where you can to help them understand that their feelings are natural.
- Tame it – Once you’ve helped your child embrace their feelings, brainstorm with them to identify how they can handle and deal with their emotions (e.g. coming up with alternative ways to celebrate their birthday).
L – Listen attentively and actively to concerns
Effective communication is essential for any relationship, including that between a parent and child. As communication is a two-way process, half of good communication is being an attentive and active listener.
When we don’t listen, the message we send to the speaker is:
- I’m not interested in what you’re saying
- What you’re going through doesn’t matter to me
- I already know everything that’s going on with you, so I don’t need to listen to you
On the other hand, when we actively and attentively listen, we:
- Help the person feel heard
- Can stop escalation of anger
- Can prevent the situation becoming out of control
- Can prevent miscommunication, false assumptions, errors and misinterpretations
Attentive listening requires 4 steps:
- Listen openly and fully – Before you talk to your child, minimise any distractions (e.g. turn off the TV). Where possible, sit next to your child so that they know you’re there and interested in listening to them. Listen to both their verbal and non-verbal communication with openness so that you can fully understand what they’re going through. This means listening to your child without judging, half listening or assuming you already know what they’re feeling or thinking.
- Paraphrase – Repeat the message back to your child so that you can show that you listened and check that you understood.
- Clarify – Ask questions until you get the complete picture. By asking questions, you’re sending the message that you’re trying to understand and help them.
- Feedback – Tell your child that you’re proud of them for sharing their concerns with you and praise them for being brave. Reinforce that they can come and talk to you anytime about anything.
K – Keep explanations age-appropriate
Young children need only brief and simple information about COVID-19. For example, you could tell them that there’s a tiny germ that we can’t see which is going around and making people sick, and that the best way to keep ourselves safe from the germ is by washing our hands and sneezing and coughing into a tissue or elbow; whereas, older children need more factual information from a range of sources. There are lots of free downloadable books available on the internet to help you determine what amount of information to give your child.
I – It’s ok to not know answers
When we’re unsure, we need to be honest and admit we don’t know the answer to a question, the reason why something happened, or if something will or won’t happen. What we can do is promise to work with our children to figure out the answer together. This accepting attitude towards not knowing something can also help our children feel better about themselves not knowing something.
N – Note the positives
One of the keys to happiness is gratitude. Routinely sit down with your child and identify what you have to be grateful for and why. Try to do this every day, and name at least three things to be grateful for.
You can also make a habit of ending a challenging conversation by noting the positives. This helps us acknowledge the goodness in our lives, feel more positive emotions, recognise good experiences and focus on what we have, rather than what we lack.
G – Ground to conclude and move forward
It’s important to not leave your child in a state of distress at the end of a challenging conversation. Stay with them until they’ve returned to a state of calm.
When they’re calm, ask them what they’re going to do next to help them move forward, and remind them that you’re there, and that they can come and talk to you any time.
Hopefully this post has reinforced what you’re already doing and given your ideas about how else you can talk to your child during these challenging times. These tips don’t just apply to the current COVID-19 situation, but can be applied to any challenging conversation you need to have with your child.