Children, especially young children, are notorious for asking a myriad of questions. Who, what, where, when, why, why, why, WHY, WHYYYYYYYYYYYYY? Those questions aren’t going to go away because we find the topic difficult or uncomfortable, or we don’t know how to answer. Children are excellent at reading nonverbal behavior. They sense our stress and our hesitation, and may respond by asking even more questions or by sending their questions underground wrapped in fear or shame.
We can help ensure children’s wellbeing during this time of upheaval by offering reassurance, empathy and age-appropriate information. Keep reading for tips for cultivating wellbeing and answers to some questions children may ask.
Be a Safekeeper
As a parent, guardian or educator, we are children’s Safekeepers: Our primary job is to keep children safe, both physically and emotionally. Our internal states regulate or deregulate children’s, so when a child approaches with questions—even questions we’d rather not deal with—take three deep breaths and reframe it as an opportunity to connect and inform.
Deep breathing shuts off the stress response in the body and can help you to remain calm enough to respond consciously to children’s questions rather than snapping, dismissing, ignoring or going down the rabbit hole of distress with the child. Remember, too, that not all children will approach you with questions. You may want to start the conversation yourself, saying something like, “So, I know you’re hearing a lot about this whole Coronavirus thing and you probably have some questions. My first question when all of this started was… (state the question and the answer, with a focus on safety). You might have questions like… (state a question you think your child might have and then answer it). What questions do you have that I can help with?”
This is an emotionally charged time for all of us. If your child’s whys and hows trigger your distress, model active calming by saying, “This is a tough subject and I can feel the anxiousness (fear, sadness, etc.) welling up inside me as we talk. I’m going to take a moment to breathe and calm down. Let’s breathe together.” You are entitled to your feelings, just as children are entitled to theirs. The idea isn’t to avoid or suppress those feelings, it’s to manage them in healthy ways. Children will sense your upset. Verbalize it and work through it in healthy ways so they can see healthy ways to manage their own feelings. Your child’s calm starts with you.
Helpful Free Resources:
- Photo and video examples of Safekeeper Rituals in Shubert’s School
- Printable: Safekeeper Ritual Plan
- Printable: Greeter Board and Safekeeper in our Premium Resources Library (currently available at no cost for 90 days)
- Printable: Feeling Faces
- Printable: How Do You Feel Chart
- Printable: I Can Handle Scared Social Story
- Printable: Mi Libro: yo puedo con mi miedo
Assertiveness is the language of safety. Children want to know what they can do to stay safe and to help others. Our job is to tell them using assertive language, rather than the languages of fear, aggression or passivity. Fear might say, “Wash your hands or you’ll get sick!” Aggression might say, “Wash your hands NOW!” Passivity might suggest, “Wash your hands, okay?” Assertiveness might say, “Wash your hands to help keep it safe.”
Assertive communication states a positive action (a “do” instead of a “don’t” or a “stop”), it carries the tone of voice and body posture of a confident “just do it,” and it often relates the action to safety. If possible, it is also helpful to demonstrate the action (“Use a quiet inside voice; match your voice to mine.”) and use descriptive language (“Wipe the front, back and sides of your tablet with the disinfectant cloth like this (demonstrate). Get into all the crevices really well. Go over the device two times until the whole thing looks shiny and wet. Now set it aside until it’s completely dry.”).
Especially during uncertain times, the sureness of assertive communication is a relief for children. Some assertive phrases you can rely on include:
- “Wash your hands for 20 seconds, scrubbing the backs and the nails like this (demonstrate).”
- “Keep your hands in your pockets and stand right next to me to keep us safe.”
- “Hold your elbow tightly against your nose and mouth like this (demonstrate) when you cough.”
- “Keep it safe by sitting up straight and tall in your seat until it’s our turn.”
- “Match your voice to mine.”
- “Take your hand off your face. Here’s a tissue. Blow your nose, put it in the trash can and rub in two pumps of hand sanitizer so we can keep each other safe.”
The constant barrage of information provided by 24/7 news coverage can be overwhelming, even to adults. For a child who may not fully understand what’s being said, it can be downright terrifying. Limit children’s exposure to news and social media so you can be a compassionate filter for the information they receive.
Also consider limiting your own media intake. When we become stressed by what we’re seeing and hearing online or on the television, we are likely to pass this emotional state to children. There is a need to stay updated as new information about COVID-19 develops, but being conscious of your level of informational and emotional overload is helpful to the whole family’s wellbeing. It may be beneficial for adults to limit their screen time to specific intervals, maybe a 15-minute morning check-in, a shorter afternoon check-in and a longer evening check-in after children go to sleep.
Acknowledge and Validate Feelings
As you answer children’s questions, big emotions are likely to bubble up. The Skill of Empathy provides us a lifeline in these difficult moments. You can learn more about empathy in our books, eCourse, webinars and other materials, but for now, here’s a shortcut you might find helpful. It’s called the D.N.A. Process.
Describe what you are seeing in terms of emotional signals. “Your face is going like this (mimic the expression).” Pause to breathe deeply.
Name the feeling. “You seem sad.”
Acknowledge the desire behind the emotion. “You were hoping…” or “You wanted…”
For example: “Your face is going like this.” Pause to breathe deeply. “You seem sad. You were hoping to play with your friends soon.”
Offering empathy through the D.N.A. Process raises children’s awareness of their feelings and provides the first steps for emotional management. It helps organize children’s brains so they can access higher-order skills like problem solving and creativity. Tune in with your child and adapt the D.N.A. Process as needed. Sometimes a simple, “You seem sad. You were really hoping that tournament wasn’t going to be cancelled. Come snuggle with me,” is all that’s required.
After offering empathy with D.N.A., you can finish answering any question and work together to come up with creative solutions. In our example, creative solutions to help stay connected with friends could include making and mailing cards, having a video chat, or baking cookies and leaving them on their doorsteps.
Sometimes there’s no easy solution for the problems at hand, at which time safety and comfort become our focus. Reassuring statements like, “Breathe with me. You’re safe. You can handle this. We’ll get through this together,” are essential. It’s also be helpful to pepper in liberal doses of validating phrases like, “That makes sense,” and, “You’re doing the best you can,” and messages of unity like, “We’re all in this together,” and, “We’re all doing the best we can right now.”
When responding to difficult questions, listen with your mind and your heart, using all of the information we’ve discussed so far in this article. This will help you to answer the surface-level cognitive question, while also addressing the underlying feelings that prompt the question. Here are some sample responses you might find helpful. Unless noted, these responses are geared for elementary-aged children. You may want to simplify the response for younger children and add depth and detail for older children.
Why are we staying home? (Older children)
COVID-19 is an illness caused by a virus that is new to humans, so we haven’t had the chance to build up our immunity to it. Millions of people all over the world are staying home and doing what’s called “social distancing” to help slow COVID-19 from spreading. Social distancing is when you don’t get near other people when outside your home and you don’t invite people into your home. The less people have contact with each other, the less likely they are to catch the virus. If fewer people get sick, our doctors and nurses are better able to treat the sick people who do come into their hospitals and clinics for help. They’re calling that “flattening the curve” and we can look up what that looks like online, if you want. One of the tricky things about this virus is that it can hang around inside the body for a pretty long time without any symptoms, and some people will develop symptoms so mild that they don’t even know they’re sick. That means someone who looks perfectly healthy can easily spread the infection to someone who might become very sick. That is why schools are closed, businesses are closed or have limited hours, people are staying home and those who do venture out are practicing social distancing to help keep each other safe.
Why are we staying home? (Younger children)
Millions of people all over the world are staying home to help slow an illness called COVID-19 from spreading. The less people go out and have contact with each other, the less likely they are to get sick. Our family is staying home to help keep each other and our community safe. (Our printable social story Coronavirus Is a Big Word may be especially helpful for young children.)
If we’re supposed to stay home, why do you still have to go to work? (Asked with distress.)
Your face is getting red and your mouth is going like this. You seem anxious and scared. You know my job is to _________ and you’re afraid something bad is going to happen. You were hoping I could stay home with you. Breathe with me. You’re safe. And I am doing everything I can to keep myself safe. All over the country, people like me are going to work to help keep our communities running and keep everyone safe. I’m going to keep myself safe by (give examples), and (name person) is here to keep you safe while I am at work. It can feel scary sometimes and that makes total sense. Breathe deeply and know I love you very much. You can handle this.
- The Story Hand ritual can help soothe children’s fears.
- A hello and goodbye ritual can also help ease transitions.
- I Love You Rituals increase connection, especially during difficult times.
We were supposed to go to ______. So, I guess we’re not going? I hate this. I hate you. It’s not fair!
Your face is going like this (demonstrate), and your voice is loud and shaky. You seem angry. You were really looking forward to that trip. Breathe with me. We’ll get through this together, and we’ll figure out a time to take the trip once it is safe. You can handle this. It’s really, really hard, but you can do it.
This virus sucks. Why doesn’t someone stop it?
You seem angry and frustrated. That makes total sense. Sometimes it feels like our whole world has been turned upside down and inside out. This is hard, but we’re all in this together and we can handle it. The doctors and nurses are working really hard to help the people who are sick, and to find a way to stop this virus from spreading. We can help by listening to their recommendations, breathing to stay calm and wishing well.
Is Papaw going to die? (Asked calmly.)
Hmmm, that’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. Papaw is doing everything he can to stay safe, and right now he is healthy. If he does get sick, the doctors and nurses will make sure he has the very best care to help him get better.
Is Papaw going to die? (Asked with distress.)
Your eyebrows are up like this. You seem really worried for Papaw and a little scared, too. That makes total sense. This is a scary time, and I don’t know that answer. Papaw is doing everything he can to stay safe. If he does get sick the doctors and nurses will make sure he has the very best care to help him get better. Right now, though, Papaw is safe and healthy. Let’s do something to show Papaw just how much we love him. Can you think of any ideas?
Why are some people still going out?
Sometimes people have important jobs that require them to go out and go to work, even now! Garbage people, police and emergency personnel, doctors, nurses, delivery people, grocery store employees, cleaning crews and a lot of other people still need to be out and about in order to keep our community running. Sometimes other people decide to go out, too, and that is their choice. We cannot control others’ actions, but we can control what we do to keep our family, our friends and our community safe. The Centers for Disease Control says that social distancing and staying home are the best ways to protect our community from the virus, so we are staying home right now.
If I have to stay home, why are those kids still out?
The Centers for Disease Control says that social distancing and staying home are the best ways to protect our community from the virus. They’re calling it a “pause,” and a “pause” is something we can totally do to help out! It’s hard sometimes, but our family has decided that this is what’s best for us. Not all families will make this same choice, and we can’t control their choices. What we can control is what we choose to do to keep our family safe and help the community, so we are staying home for now.
When will I get to see my friends again?
It’s hard not seeing your friends or playing with them. Right now, the best way to keep everyone safe is to take a break from visiting with others. We don’t know when it will be safe to visit with friends or go to school again, but we can help shorten the time by staying home so fewer people become ill.
What will happen if I get sick?
Your face is going like this (demonstrate). It’s saying, “I’m feeling scared.” Breathe with me. You can handle this. You are safe with me right now in this moment. We’re doing everything we can to keep you and our whole family safe (name specific things you’re doing). Most children and young people who get this virus don’t get very sick from it. If you did start feeling yucky, we would keep an eye on your symptoms and get help from a doctor if you needed it.
What will happen if you get sick?
Your eyes are going like this (demonstrate). You seem anxious about all the things that could possibly happen, and you want to know that our family will be safe from it all. That makes total sense! I’m doing everything I can to keep myself and the whole family safe, and you’re helping by staying home and washing your hands. If I do get sick, I’ll stay away from you and the rest of the family until I’m healthy again. I’ll drink lots of water and take some medicine and sleep a lot. Most people who get this virus don’t need to go to a hospital, but if I do, the doctors and nurses there will help me get better. Right now, though, look around you. We are all safe and healthy. We have (list some comforting things or activities). We’re washing our hands, staying home and doing all the other things that help keep us safe. We’ll get through this together.
Will things ever go back to normal?
Things will eventually get back to normal, and we can figure out a new normal until then. The Centers for Disease Control asked everyone to go on a 15-day pause a while ago, but they also acknowledge that the pause could last for much longer. So, we don’t know how long this will last! But we do know that the more we stay home and slow the spread of the virus, the better the medical system can help all the people who become sick. It’s hard not knowing when all these restrictions will end. What are some things we can do to help make this situation feel more normal and less wonky for you?
- Daily schedules provide a sense of structure and safety, especially in uncertain times.
- Daily routines are also helpful.
- Watch the free webinar Three Vital Steps to Successful Routines with Kim Jackson to learn more.
I heard that it’s a China virus and we should be okay.
There’s a lot of real information and a lot of misinformation out there. The illness is named Coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19 for short. The first people to be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 do live in China. Over the period of a few months, the virus spread to become a worldwide concern. Every country around the globe is dealing with the virus right now. People of all nationalities, races, sexes, religion and ages can catch the virus. It can be hard sometimes to tell real information from opinion or rumor. You can always come to me with something you’ve heard and if I’m not 100% certain, we can find an accurate answer together.
What if it’s someone’s birthday?
Oh that’s right, it’s Kayden’s birthday this week! What could we do to celebrate from inside our home? You could make a card, or we could record a special birthday song and dance to email over to him. What do you want to do to celebrate?
Why did my birthday have to come in the middle of all this? I can’t have a party or anything!
Your face is going like this (demonstrate). It’s saying, “I feel disappointed.” And that makes total sense; you wanted to have a big birthday party like we did last year and now you can’t. Breathe with me; this is hard. We’ll celebrate the best we can right now and figure out a time to celebrate with friends and family once it is safe. You can handle this. Your friends and family love you very much and are so, so, SO very happy you were born, even if they can’t all celebrate together with you right now. Now, what can we do here at home to make your birthday special? We can video chat with all your best friends. And maybe bake a cake together? What sounds good to you?
I heard bad guys made this virus so the world would collapse.
Sometimes when people feel scared, they come up with all kinds of different explanations. There’s a lot of good information and a lot of misinformation out there. It can be hard sometimes to tell the real stuff from the rumors. It’s true that a lot of people are going to struggle economically, but governments and communities are doing the best they can to help everyone out. Scientists aren’t 100% certain of the origin of the virus, but they do know it was a natural mutation, or change, in an animal-based virus. The mutation allowed the virus to live in and pass between humans. Humans could never transmit it between each other before, so that’s why we don’t have any immunity and so many people are getting sick. There’s a ton of good information about all of this online. Let’s go learn more about it together.
Where will Aunt Cathy have her baby if the hospitals are all full?
Some Mommies will still have their babies in a hospital, but some may have them at home or at a birthing center. Aunt Cathy has had many meetings with her doctors about this very subject, and they are going to come up with a plan to keep her and her baby safe. You seem a little excited and a little scared for Aunt Cathy. Let’s come up with a plan for ways we can show Aunt Cathy we love her and are thinking of her. We can think of things to do now, and things we can do after the baby is born.
- Read the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for talking with children for more tips.