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After the fourth trip to the grocery store in two weeks resulted in no toilet paper, Carol Ramsdell’s 8-year-old daughter started getting scared. This was clearly not normal — way worse than what happens before a storm or during a power outage.
But it was on the fifth trip, as they rounded a corner and saw a man wearing a gas mask, that things took a turn.
“Mom, are we going to die?” asked the second grader, terrified.
And that’s how Ramsdell found herself in the cereal aisle of Stop & Shop in Cape Cod, explaining the concept of hoarding in a pandemic to her very scared little girl.
Parents everywhere are grappling with the same problem: How to explain this surreal time to their kids, whether age 4 or 14, in a way that informs them but doesn’t paralyze them with fear. It’s a lot like another existential crisis — climate change — and some parents find they are calling on comparable approaches.
“These are similar issues in terms of being big, worldwide problems that children can have very little effect on the outcome of,” said David Sobel, an environmental educator and professor emeritus at Antioch University New England, in New Hampshire, who coined the term “ecophobia” to describe the anxiety that can come from abstract environmental problems.
There’s no denying what’s going on right now. The sudden shift from going to school and daycare to being home (and only home — ever) makes it impossible for families to shield the reality of what’s going on from their kids. Similarly, as the extreme weather driven by climate change becomes more common, kids are more likely than ever to be grappling with the impacts of global warming.
Even in normal times, children are full of questions, looking to their parents to help them understand the world around them. So when it comes to the big stuff, the stakes can feel particularly high.
“We’re all trying to do the best we can with our kids, but we have no idea if what we’re doing is helping them or hurting them,” said Christina Arata, a teacher and mother of two in Oceanside, New York. “We’re just swimming through trying to do our best.”
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Experts have laid out a handful of tactics that parents can use to make it easier — like making sure to talk to kids at their developmental level, creating new routines to meet the challenges of the extraordinary time we’re in, and balancing the hard things with positive stories.
That day in the grocery store, with 8-year-old Charlotte in tears and clinging to her leg, Ramsdell stooped down and gave her a hug. “I just said, ‘Oh hon, everything is going to be fine. This is going to blow over and everything will be OK,” she said. But that didn’t stop Charlotte from having nightmares, nor did it stop her from worrying that Ramsdell, who is asthmatic and a single mother, might get sick and die.
“She’s harboring all these feelings that she doesn’t know how to get out because she’s 8,” Ramsdell said. “As a parent, you’re crushed.”
Understanding kids’ emotions
Near the beginning of this crisis, a post started circulating on social media that described how kids’ worries about COVID-19 could manifest. The simple graphic, created by Erin Leyba, a family therapist based in a Chicago suburb, explained how sadness about COVID-19 can take different forms in young kids — they might say they’re bored or too tired to walk to the park, or might misplace their anger.
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“A lot of the behaviors we’re seeing right now people might attribute to being naughty or breaking the rules or acting out, but I think what’s really going on is they’re responding to their inner world of emotion,” Leyba said.
She said she sees it in her own kids, who at age 2, 7, 8 and 10 have seen their worlds turned upside down, as well as in the kids of the patients she sees — now via video conference, instead of in her office. When asked if they want to go for a walk, the kids might say they just don’t feel like it. “They say, ‘I just don’t want to go. It’s too cold, I’m too tired,’” Leyba said. “That’s a coping skill — to numb out and want to sleep all the time.”
Arata said her 9-year-old daughter can feel overcome by what’s going on. “There’s a lot of worry about ‘When are we going back to school? Am I going to see my teacher again?’” she said. At the end of their school-from-home Zoom calls with her class, Sofia, who is in fourth grade, is often in tears.
The same thing happens when the climate crisis comes home. Earlier this year, as Sofia’s class learned about wildfires blazing across Australia, killing countless animals in the area, she was distraught. “She couldn’t stop talking about it,” Arata said. “She was really worried about the koalas. What’s going to happen? Are the animals going to die? How many?”
The responses make sense, Leyba said: it’s the same way many adults feel when confronted with these big, scary issues. The difference is that kids aren’t as able to process it. And the anxiety that parents feel can land squarely in the laps of their kids.
“Kids at this age, they’re modeling off of me,” Leyba said. “So it’s almost figuring myself out first — they’re so intuitive and pick up on my feelings. If I’m anxious or scared or sad, they pick up on it.”
Parents can help their kids by modeling how to name their emotions — “I’m feeling sad and it’s OK to be sad” — and then helping their kids do the same.
In Maplewood, New Jersey, Lauren Escobar-Phani spends a lot of time explaining to her 2-year old and 4-year-old daughters about germs and why they can’t go to school or into stores or play on the playground.
On a recent afternoon, when her husband went to check on the 4-year-old, who was supposed to be napping, he found her awake in bed with a doll. “She told my husband she was a doctor in a hospital, and the doll had coronavirus so she was treating her,” Escobar-Phani said. “She’s just sad. She’s sad she can’t do her normal routines. Sad because she misses her friends. For us, it’s less talking about the illness and more talking about what it means to be in quarantine.”
When it comes to talking to kids about the big scary stuff, age is important. A young child, under the age of 9 or 10, doesn’t process problems in the same way that an older child does.
“There’s not any ability with young children — 4, 5, 6, 7 — to understand spatial geography and what’s happening someplace else versus what’s happening here,” said Sobel. “With kids, we tend to overestimate their cognitive ability.” So for instance, if a child is worried about wildfires in California but they live on the east coast, just showing them a map and explaining that the problem is far away might not alleviate their concern.
But that changes around fourth grade, Sobel said. “Right around 9 years old, reason starts to trump fantasy,” he said. “Until 8 or 9 years old, kids solve logical inconsistencies with magic. Santa’s too big to fit down the chimney, so how does he do it? Well, he touches his nose and shrinks himself.”
Around age 9, though, they’ll start to test those logical inconsistencies. “That’s when kids are less prone to being emotionally overwhelmed and fearful,” Sobel said.
Applying this concept to talking to kids about COVID-19, Sobel broke down the different ways he would address the issue at different ages.
He might tell a 5-year-old: “There’s a sickness that’s really easy to catch and the way you avoid it is to not be touching and meeting with other people, and that’s why we’re staying home. And I know it’s a drag, because you really want to play with your friends, but for a while it’s going to be you and me and your sister and your bunny and we can have a lot of fun right now, but we really need to stay away from other people.”
But with a fourth to sixth grader, that changes and they’re ready for more information. Around that age, a child’s state usually represents “the world they live in,” Sobel said. “So I might look at maps of the state and look at the counties where the cases are. I would focus on what’s happening in our state as opposed to what’s in the world, so I could give them some sense of what’s happening in the scope that’s appropriate for them.”
In talking with a 13-year-old, the conversation is much more like what you might say to an adult, he said. “They have the capacity to understand scale and relative risk,” Sobel said.
Telling a story
At all ages, a key ingredient in the conversation is hope. “Every children’s story is based on the same concept: there’s a threat and the heroes recognize it, they fight it and they save the day,” said Samantha Ahdoot, a pediatrician based in Alexandria, Virginia who chairs the group Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action.
With COVID-19, the hero concept is easier to apply: Kids can be health heroes by doing their part and staying home. With climate change, where there’s not the same universal acceptance of either the challenge or the solutions, it’s trickier.
“It’s still imperative that we never present it as the end of the world,” Ahdoot said. “We can talk to kids about what they can do to be part of the solution.”
In young children that might look like conserving water and energy, understanding and appreciating the natural world and picking up trash.
Once kids reach middle or high school and they can understand the more complex concepts and consequences of climate change, their action can ratchet up — from writing to legislators and corporations to climate strikes like Fridays for the Future.
With both COVID-19 and climate change, “It’s all about being honest, but not terrifying them,” Ahdoot said. “Focusing on solutions and how they can participate in community efforts to protect themselves and their families.”
In San Antonio, Texas, Heather Eichling talks to her sons Luca, 7, and Joaquin, 2, about the positive things that are happening. On a recent night, they were able to see a sky full of stars — something that rarely happens because of how close they live to the airport. “I explained to my oldest that the combination of less air pollution and light pollution means we can see stars,” she said. Likewise, she shared a photo from her sister in Massachusetts of wild turkeys walking through her neighborhood.
Those positives don’t erase the tough stuff. The boys’ sleep is restless, they’re needing more attention from their parents and they’re confused about having their parents home but working. But they help.
“We’re pointing out the things that are positive and explaining that maybe there are ways we can think about changing our lifestyle in the future,” she said.