The novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has made headlines for several weeks and has drastically impacted life as we know it. The outbreak, which the World Health Organization recently labeled a pandemic, has disrupted global commerce, shaken the United States stock market and led to travel restrictions and international border closures. Here in the United States, in an attempt to slow the coronavirus spread, major events have been canceled, educational systems are resorting to online forums, and organizations are recommending that employees telecommute. Medical providers are offering telehealth services, and places of worship are examining alternatives to in-person worship services. As of March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency, which may bring additional restrictions.
The coronavirus and children’s mental health
Global anxiety is high, and our clients are negatively impacted as they stockpile supplies and prepare for the unknown. Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, children struggle to make sense of all that they are seeing and hearing. Overwhelmed with information, children are responding in a variety of ways. Professionals who work with children report an increase in insomnia, rumination, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and acting out behaviors.
“After twenty years of successful classroom management, I am finding it hard to command the attention of kids whose energy is so amped up,” says Steff Linden, an educator and children’s mindfulness yoga instructor in Annapolis, Maryland. “They are running around, tripping over themselves, and bumping into each other. These behaviors are examples of children who are overstimulated. They know something is going on, but they don’t know how to react, and they feel helpless and stuck.”
Children can’t escape the tension created by the viral crisis, so they begin creating an understanding which is often complicated by misinformation. “I had a kid poke his finger in my arm and yell, ‘You’ve got the coronavirus! I touched you!’” Linden reports.
Children are acting out their fears through behavior and play. Therefore, it is vital to address their concerns in a way that is reassuring and honest. Here are some tips for talking to children about the coronavirus: The acronym CAPES.
C: Create a calm setting. Children pick up on the emotions of the adults around them. Adults need to manage their anxiety before attempting to address the concerns of children. It is essential to provide a calm setting before talking with children about COVID-19.
A: Ask what they already know. Children are already talking about the virus. They may have misinformation that needs to be corrected. Ask children what they have heard about the virus? Ask them about their concerns and fears. Children tend to worry about their own safety and those in their immediate world such as friends, family members, and even pets.
P: Provide age-appropriate answers. Answer children’s questions with honest, factual and age appropriate answers. Provide answers that are bias-free. Explain that COVID-19 is caused by a new virus and makes people feel sick with a cough and fever. Help battle stigmatizing any particular population by emphasizing that the coronavirus is no one person or country’s fault.
E: Empower them with tools. Children feel powerless over this big virus that has people buying out toilet paper and Clorox wipes. Provide them with actual tools to use that will be empowering by teaching them to wash their hands using soap and water while singing a happy tune for twenty seconds, cough or sneeze into their elbows—not their hands—or a tissue that they immediately toss in the trash and use no contact greetings such as jazz hands or Namaste.
S: Safety. Children turn to adults for a sense of safety and well-being. Assure children that it is not their job to worry about the virus and that you have a plan in place to care for them. Explain ways that you are keeping them safe by making sure they get enough sleep and providing them with nutritious meals. Tell them that their regular visits to the pediatrician and daily vitamin (if they take one) help keep them healthy. Even with school closings, provide daily structure that includes time for non-directed play to help children act out and process feelings. Help them make a list of ways they are healthy and safe. There are a lot of unknowns with COVID 19, so focus your conversation on what is known.
As counselors, we can help parents and our child clients better manage the plethora of information that is available. We can assure children that the adults in their lives are up for the task of taking care of them. The acronym CAPES can remind us how to be superheroes in an effective way to the young members of society who are powerless.
And, as always, we must remember our own self-care during this challenging time. Take a peek at my thoughts around a counselor’s guide to surviving flu season my column from February 2018, “The Counseling Connoisseur: Compassion and self-care during flu season.”
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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