Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people want to talk about it all the time. Others would rather think about anything else. This can make it hard to know what to say or how to support those who may be struggling. Here are some tips on how to navigate these difficult conversations with children and teens and with adult colleagues and loved ones.
Talking to children and teens
Many children and teens are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re no longer able to go to school, hang out with friends, or take part in their usual activities. They may feel fearful or overwhelmed when using social media to talk with their friends — and during a public health crisis like this, too much media coverage of any kind can increase their distress.
Children and teens are also highly sensitive to changes in the mood around them. They often pick up on parents’ or siblings’ stress even when it’s unspoken, noticing subtle behavioural cues you may not even be aware of. This can make them worry about their loved ones, and yet they’re typically less capable than adults of managing high levels of stress and frustration.
Like adults, not all children respond to stress the same way. Some may become clingy and want extra attention, seeking safety in their surroundings. Others may become distant, defiant, or argumentative. They may insist on doing things their way to regain a sense of control. At times, these behaviours can create family conflict.
What can you do?
The most important thing is, to be honest. Don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation, but stay calm and optimistic when you talk about it. Don’t push children who don’t want to talk about the pandemic: check in regularly and let them know you’re ready to listen whenever they’re ready to talk.
When you do talk about COVID-19, ask open-ended questions such as:
- “What would you like to know?”
- “How does this make you feel?”
- ‘When you feel X, what does that make you want to do?”
- “What do you need right now?”
- “When you do X, how do you feel?”
Make sure conversations include space for kids and teens to ask questions. Try not to overwhelm them with information: start with small amounts of information and see how they respond. It’s also fine if you don’t know the answer to every question. Take the opportunity to learn together.
Another way to foster a positive environment at home during the pandemic is to be kind and caring to your partner (if you have one) and to yourself. Take time for yourself every day, even if only a few minutes. It will help you model resilience and a sense of calm for others in your home.
The following sites have more tips on age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids about COVID-19:
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: Talking to children about COVID-19 and its impact
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Parent/caregiver guide to helping families cope with the coronavirus disease 2019
- Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress: Discussing coronavirus with your children
- Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress: Finding the right words to talk with children and teens about coronavirus
- Canadian Psychological Association: Helping teens cope with the impacts of and restrictions related to COVID-19
If your child needs additional support, Kids Help Phone provides confidential counselling by phone, text, and live chat, along with a collection of additional resources for children and teens.
Talking to colleagues, friends, and loved ones about COVID-19
Your public safety personnel (PSP) colleagues and other adults in your life may also be struggling to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. You can help by listening to them, understanding their concerns, and suggesting coping strategies and resources.
Support people how they want to be supported
Be empathetic. Try to see things from the perspective of the person you’re talking to and understand how they feel. If they’re open to your help, ask how you can support them. Some people may just need to vent, while others may want to gather information and find ways to take action.
Share facts in a clear and straightforward manner, keeping in mind that sometimes too much negative information, especially from news or social media, can make some people’s anxiety worse. This is because our minds automatically simplify complex information: we try to remember “just the important stuff” for efficiency. The mind tends to prioritize information that provokes negative emotions because it could affect our safety. (This negativity bias is reflected in the way the news media tends to focus on stories that are about tragedies — and in the ways we respond to online clickbait). Overconsuming negative information can affect how we perceive risk, and the stress we feel as a result.
Check in regularly to see how your colleagues, friends, and loved ones are doing and keep yourself available in case they need your support.
Help people regain a sense of control
Psychological research shows that emotions play a bigger role in our perception of risk than data and evidence. Even when evidence suggests the risk is low, if we’re feeling afraid, we’ll tend to perceive the risk to be greater. Fear is often driven by a lack of control, especially if a situation is unfamiliar.
With no vaccine available yet, the COVID-19 pandemic may be especially frightening for PSPs who could come into contact with confirmed or suspected cases.
As with other viral infections, there are simple things everyone can do to minimize exposure and risk. Good hand hygiene is one of the most important. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Nitrile gloves, surgical masks, and N95 respirators can also help reduce the risk of transmission to public safety personnel. Emphasize to your friends and family that these simple actions are within their control — and are some of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of this virus.
Encourage people to help others
It can be helpful for people to refocus their attention on others. Focusing outward often helps people feel better about themselves. They might prepare a meal or shop for an elderly neighbour (taking appropriate precautions). They could offer to listen to another friend, whether to provide advice or to simply validate their feelings.
Supporting others can help reframe the situation and remind people they’re not alone. It can also be helpful to keep an eye out for positive events or experiences that can help balance the current focus on the negative.
Take care of yourself
To help others during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, you first have to take care of yourself. Take a break if you need one. Get support when you need it. See Taking care of your basic needs for strategies to maintain your own wellbeing.
NATAL Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center. Support ing your children in times of stress.