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Coronavirus: Advice For Answering Children's Tough Questions In Uncertain Times

Children can handle some uncertainty, but empowering them with answers to their questions and involving them in new routines can help, says Dr. Judith Bryant
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Coronavirus has upended daily life, and for those who care for children, it can be hard to know what to say, or how to explain. WUSF’s Kerry Sheridan spoke with Dr. Judith Bryant, a USF professor of psychology who specializes in child development, for advice on answering their toughest questions.

What kind of moment are we in right now as a society? What's the psychology of this moment in time?

I think the hardest part for all of us, regardless of our age, is just uncertainty. Humans don't like when life is not predictable, and when our routines are thrown off. That's kind of disconcerting. So it's helpful to have suggestions about what to do personally.

When is too young to talk to a child about coronavirus?

I don't think it's ever too young. But it seems to me the issue is more trying to figure out what they might want to know. They don't need more information than they're asking for. You can always come back at it, you can tell them that our experts are helping them stay healthy and helping everybody stay healthy and their teachers are working to keep them occupied and so on. It’s what you say and how you say it. That's going to vary by age.

So if they have a question, you should answer their question.

If they have a question, you answer it as best you can. I would steer away from being overly excited or giving them untrue information. And it's also perfectly fine to say, 'I don't know, let's read about it,' or 'Let's go online and find out a little bit more.'

Dr. Judith Bryant
Credit USF
The Florida Channel
Dr. Judith Bryant

Is it important to talk to children of different ages about it differently? Say, elementary,  middle school or high school?

Yes. Because they're going to have different kinds of concerns. It's not just their different ages, and the different information they have the capacity to understand it's also taking into account their personality. Some children are more anxious. They worry more than others and one might need to be particularly careful with those children. But yes, little preschoolers have different kinds of questions and a different capacity to understand illness and prevention and measures being taken than would say a high schooler whose cognitive capacity is pretty much like ours with respect to processing this kind of information.

What are some ways to deal with the uncertainty of it? What if your kid says, 'Is grandma going to die?' Or, 'When am I going to go back to school?' How do you answer those questions?

It seems we don't have an answer to that. And so part of coping with the uncertainty is making as many things in one's life predictable as possible. So if it's possible, stick to routines. You get up at a certain time during the school year, try to continue to do that. Family time, meal time, getting outside... we're so fortunate to be in Florida where we can be outside and get exercise and, and so on. But I think getting into those routines, going back to normal -- as normal as possible-- creating new routines, that will help tremendously.

So what about things that parents or adults should not say? What are some 'don'ts' when it comes to talking to kids about this?

I would hesitate to tell children, this will all be done by x time. 'Your school is closed for two weeks, then you'll be back'… We really don't know. So I would avoid certainty of when school begins or when Disney will open, things like that. I would avoid guaranteeing them that everybody will stay healthy. We don't know that. But I think it’s ok, in that children can handle some level of uncertainty.

Kids like honesty and they like fairness and justice. They don't want to be lied to, I guess?

Yes. And, again, you can temper the message by being careful not to give them too much beyond what they really are asking.

And these sorts of routines you mentioned, is it important to give children a sense of power over their circumstance or let them set some new rules or set some new ideas for things to do? 

I think that's a great idea. So enabling children, who are often powerless to make decisions and giving them reasonable choices. Do you want to do your reading at this time or that time for the younger children? What should we have for dinner? Do you want to help? Can you bring the ingredients? Can you wash some things? If you're going shopping, what reasonably might we need? Let's assess what we've got. Let's do this together, we can make a checklist, we can make sure we have enough soap around the house for our hand washing. Clearly, children can be involved and that empowers them as well.

What about parents or adults who are dealing with children in this time of uncertainty? How should adults think about getting their own heads right before they talk to children?

It's a challenge as with hurricanes and other kinds of unusual situations, and to the extent possible, especially for our children's sake, we really need to get control of our emotions, because children, especially the young ones get their emotional cues from us. And so if we are anxious, panicking, constantly worrying, that will get conveyed to them. And that just makes it so difficult for the family. And even though it's perhaps difficult to do, we do need to compose ourselves when we're around our children. And I think that'll make us feel better too. And the suggestions I've made for children -- for routine and being involved and, and perhaps limiting, with all due respect, to exposure to media, sometimes that can be just relentless. And so the same tips I'd say for children will work for adults as well. We need to take care of our own physical and mental health. And get outside. I think that's helpful too.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.