Pandemic Parenting Town Hall: How to talk about COVID-19 with kids of different ages

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Welcome to Pandemic Parenting Town Hall. All this week, Raising Arizona Kids will be addressing your questions and concerns impacting your family and providing practical, reassuring advice from local experts. Send questions to Lisa@RAKmagazine.com.


Clinical psychologist Michael Redivo, PhD with his family.

Several readers had questions about how to talk with their kids about the pandemic, especially in households with children who are in very different developmental stages. We sought perspective on this issue from Michael Redivo, PhD, a  clinical psychologist who has practiced for more than 25 years in Scottsdale. Redivo, whose practice specializes in child, adolescent and family therapy and parenting skills training, is the author of “Values Grounded Parenting,” to be published next month.

Q: “I’m wondering about the difference in how or what to share with my older kids versus the younger ones?”

Start by taking into account that children process information based on the stage of their cognitive and emotional development. That is, your children’s ages will determine how much information they can effectively process. The older the child, the greater the ability to handle more complex information. The younger the child, the more simplistic the language and the ideas should be.

For toddlers, stick to the basics of the direct impacts on them. Explain that mom and dad may be home more for a while and how their usual routine is changing. Communicate a “new normal” routine for them — for example, they can still play outside, but not with their friends right now.

For preschoolers through elementary school-age children, convey simple messages of safety and reassurance: “There’s a sickness out there, but we’re doing everything to take care and make sure we’re all healthy.” Explain that they need to be inside to stay safe. Then empower them with ways they can keep themselves healthy through thorough frequent hand washing and other precautions.

Pre-teens and early teens will have greater concerns for others — their family and friends’ well being — as well as themselves. “They can handle knowing that there is an illness spreading but that communities are working together to stop it,” Redivo says. Social isolation will be very difficult for this age group. Help them with ideas to stay in contact with friends through social media or calls. Let them know that visits with older family members aren’t advisable.

For older teenagers, he advises empathy for what they are missing out in their late high school years – particularly graduating seniors. Acknowledge their grief on milestones they may be missing such as prom and graduation activities. Encourage them to talk about their feelings, and ask them “how are you holding up?”

During crisis time, your approach makes a big difference in bolstering kids’ confidence and trust in your parental leadership. With all your kids, maintain a calm presence, tone and body language. “Don’t communicate that you are stressed or anxious. Maintain good eye contact,” Redivo advises. With younger children, having them sit in your lap or maintaining some kind of physical contact while discussing tough issues with them is helpful.

Redivo encourages regular meetings with all family members. These 15-to-20-minute conversations can happen over dinner to discuss kids’ morale, changes to any routines, new rules, appropriate news updates and any questions. “We want to encourage all kids to verbalize and invite them to cope with this situation in a healthy way,” he says.

Finally, make open communication part of your family’s daily routine. A consistent structure will help kids feel centered in a time of uncertainty.