How To Model “Constructive Fear” Without Freaking Your Kids Out

parenting in coronavirus outbreak

My children have been out of school and quarantined at home for almost six weeks now. In many ways, we are getting used to the whole situation. My kids are begrudgingly doing their schoolwork. They are definitely glued to their screens more than I’d like — but, I’ve given up on perfectionism in that realm. I mostly want us to get through this whole thing with our health and our sanity intact.

Anxiety is a real concern for kids during the pandemic. In all honesty, the thing I worry most about is my kids’ mental health — specifically, how this coronavirus pandemic is affecting their anxiety. Sure, there is the boredom, the lack of socializing, and the loneliness. But my biggest concerns are the fear, anxiety, and trauma they may be experiencing as a result of living through a deadly and life-altering pandemic.

Can We Explain the Severity of Coronavirus Without Scaring Them?

My children are 7 and 13. My plan has never been to hide any information about coronavirus from them. I wouldn’t be able to keep it from them if I wanted to. Between their friends, the media, and the conversations they are likely overhearing between my husband and me, they are going to pick up on most of the news. And, of course, I want to be honest with them.

But there’s definitely a fine line between providing them with candid, helpful information — and totally freaking them out.

I believe they are old enough to experience some “constructive fear” when it comes to their understanding of what is happening and what is expected of them as a result. But if I’m not careful, I run the risk of scaring them in a harmful way, that may have long-term consequences, and that is certainly not something I want.

I remember in the early days of the virus, when we were trying to explain to our 7-year-old why we didn’t want him to touch the elevator buttons in our apartment building, or why, before he could do anything else, he had to wash his hands as soon as he came home.

To that he replied, “You told me the virus wasn’t so bad for little kids, and that I shouldn’t be scared.”

What do I say to that? I thought. How do I make sure he stays vigilant without frightening him? How do I help him feel positive about the role he is playing in our community without making everything feel big and scary and out of his control?

I’ve been making an effort to model “constructive fear” with my kids, in hopes they understand the severity of the situation, while protecting their mental health from some of the harsher realities we’re facing as adults.

4 Tips For Modeling “Constructive Fear”

I definitely don’t have all the answers, but there are a couple of things I’ve learned in the past few weeks about making sure my children stay informed and take the virus seriously without getting completely overwhelmed.

1. Daily check-ins

Bedtime is when my kids and I have always had our deepest talks. They are more open and receptive to discussing their emotions when they’re lying there in the dark with me. Most days, I make sure to check in with them about the quarantine.

I ask them if they have any questions about how things are progressing, about any news they’ve heard, or about the shutdowns and cancellations. Sometimes they do, and we have honest talks about their questions, concerns, and fears. Other times, they don’t really have anything to say, but I’m happy they know they can always ask me anything. I make it clear that nothing is off the table.

2. Managing my own coronavirus anxiety

Kids most definitely pick up on their parents’ anxiety. I have noticed that on the days I am most anxious about the state of our world, my kids are more disagreeable and cranky. They may not come out and say, “Hey mom, your anxiety is rubbing off on us. Enough with this second-hand anxiety.” But, instead, it comes out in their behavior. So, I try my best to keep up with my mental health self-care routines — exercise, meditation, check-ins with my therapist. These things are more important than ever! You can’t take care of others without taking care of yourself. While we’re all inside it can be a challenge to set aside time that’s just for you, but if you can make it happen, your mental health will benefit.

At the same time, I don’t want to keep all my fear inside and not act like a normal human with a full range of emotions. That being said, there are times when I tell my kids that I am anxious and I also talk about how I am trying to handle my feelings. I think it’s important for them to see that anxiety — especially in times like this — is normal, and something that can be managed.

3. Telling them the truth, but leaving out some of the details

As for relaying the news to my children, it’s undeniably a fine line. Over the past few weeks, as cases of coronavirus in our area began to increase exponentially — and we had to limit our time outdoors — I needed to explain the situation to my children in a way that made sense, but wasn’t alarming.

I simply told them that there were a lot of people getting sick with the virus in our area, and that we were going to be staying home even more to keep our neighbors safe. I didn’t give them exact figures (I live in the New York metropolitan area, so those numbers are quite high!) and I certainly didn’t discuss the number of people who were hospitalized or dying. But, I was able to relay the seriousness of the situation, answer any questions they had, and keep them informed.

4. Talking about hope and resilience

I think it’s important for all of us — children especially — to see that even in a time as stressful and scary as this, there are stories of hope and resilience. I tell my children about all the brave men and women working hard each day on the frontlines to care for the sick, to deliver food to grocery stores, and to keep the world running smoothly.

I make sure to include my kids in this list — I tell them that by staying home, they are playing an important role in stopping the spread of the virus, keeping their neighbors healthy. As the curve began to flatten in New York, I applauded their efforts. I want my children to see that, as scary all this is, we all have the strength inside to get through it and make a positive mark on the world.

Looking Ahead

Living through a pandemic is not something I would ever have wished to experience. Yet I think we are all looking for a silver lining — and I think we may see it in the future for our children.

I think that all our children are going to have to work through some fear and difficult feelings when this pandemic finally resolves and life gets back to something like normal. But at the same time, I think our kids will have gained an important perspective they otherwise might not have.Our children will see that they are capable of handling extremely difficult and frightening situations. They will know that they are strong and can survive adverse experiences. They will have learned that being careful and considerate of others is a positive and affirming thing. And my goodness — they will certainly have learned to cover their mouths when they sneeze and wash their freaking hands! For more advice and tips on parenting during the coronavirus pandemic, check out Talkspace’s free online support group, monitored by licensed therapists.

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