We are in uncharted waters with national and local states of emergency, schools and most activities being shut down, and rapidly evolving strategies on managing the COVID-19 outbreak. Everyone’s anxiety is appropriately high. As health care providers for children, you are facing changes in your personal life at home and in practice, likely including setting up televisits, trying to assess which patients to see, managing staffing challenges, and facing potential cash flow issues as expenses continue but revenue may fall short. And, of course, you will address a host of novel questions and concerns from the families you care for.
Your top priorities are to stay calm while offering clear recommendations on testing, quarantine, and treatment with guidance from our federal and local public health agencies. By providing clear guidance on the medical issues, you will offer substantial reassurance to families. But even with a medical plan in place, this remains a confusing and anxiety-provoking moment, one without much precedent in most people’s lives or in our national experience. Our aim is to complement that guidance by offering you some principles to help families manage the stress and anxiety that the disruptions and uncertainties that this public health emergency has created.
Offer clear, open, regular, and child-centered communication
If you have an email mailing list of your parents, you may want to summarize information you are gathering with a note they can expect at a specified time each day. You could request them to email you questions that then can be included as an FAQ (frequently asked questions).
Most children will have noticed people wearing face masks, or dramatic scenes on the news with hospital workers in full protective gear, breathlessly reporting growing numbers of the infected and the deceased. At a minimum, they are being commanded to wash hands and to not touch their faces (which is challenging enough for adults!), and are probably overhearing conversations about quarantines and contagion as well as family concerns about jobs and family finances. Many children are managing extended school closures and some are even managing the quarantine or serious illness of a loved one. When children overhear frightening news from distressed adults, they are going to become anxious and afraid themselves. Parents should remember to find out what their children have seen, heard, or understood about what is going on, and they should correct misinformation or misunderstandings with clear explanations. They also should find out what their children are curious about. “What has you wondering about that?” is a great response when children have questions, in order to make sure you get at any underlying worry.
It is fine to not have an answer to every question. It is difficult to offer clear explanations about something that we don’t yet fully understand, and it is fine to acknowledge what we don’t know. “That’s a great question. Let’s look together at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] website.” Offering to look for answers or information together can be a powerful way to model how to handle uncertainty. And always couch answers with appropriate (not false) reassurance: “Children and young adults appear to be very safe from this illness, but we want to take care to protect those that are older or already sick.”
Remember most children set their anxiety level based on their parent’s anxiety, and part of being child centered in your communication includes offering information in an age-appropriate manner. Preschool-aged children (up to 5 years) still have magical thinking. They are prone to finding masks and gowns scary and to assume that school stopping may be because they did something wrong. Tell them about the new illness, and about the doctors and officials working hard to keep people safe. Reassure them about all of the adults working hard together to understand the illness and take care of people who are sick. Their sense of time is less logical, so you may have to tell them more than once. Reassure them that children do not get very sick from this illness, but they can carry and spread it, like having paint on their hands, so they need to wash their hands often to take good care of other people.
School-age children (aged roughly 5-12 years) are better equipped cognitively to understand the seriousness of this outbreak. They are built to master new situations, but are prone to anxiety as they don’t yet have the emotional maturity to tolerate uncertainty or unfairness. Explain what is known without euphemisms, be truly curious about what their questions are, and look for answers together. Often what they need is to see you being calm in the face of uncertainty, bearing the strong feelings that may come, and preserving curiosity and compassion for others.
Adolescents also will need all of this support, and can be curious about more abstract implications (political, ethical, financial). Do not be surprised when they ask sophisticated questions, but still are focused on the personal disruptions or sacrifices (a canceled dance or sports meet, concerns about academic performance). Adolescence is a time of intense preoccupation with their emerging identity and relationships; it is normal for them to experience events in a way that may seem selfish, especially if it disrupts their time with friends. Remind parents to offer compassion and validation, while acknowledging that shared sacrifice and discomfort are a part of every individual’s experience when a society must respond to such a large challenge.