For parents, talking to kids about virus requires deft touch

The Associated PressSeven-year-old Telly Markun collects litter Wednesday in Huntington, W.Va. With schools being closed because of the new coronavirus, Telly and her sister were cleaning up the neighborhood as part of recommended physical activity from their take-home school curriculum.

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Molly Gillon's 2-year-old daughter doesn't seem to be bothered by the current state of affairs; she's just happy her big sister is home to play.

"She's completely unaware of what's going on; she's just excited," said the Pittsfield, Mass. mom of two who, like many parents across the country, is faced with keeping her children home during the quarantine and school shutdowns in response to COVID-19.

Her 4-year-old daughter, she said, is starting to understand more every day as she inevitably begins to pick up on stresses around the house: Gillon and her husband own a small local business, and her in-laws are visiting from the United Kingdom.

"To help her understand, we compared it to the flu," Gillon said. "She's aware that the flu is going around. We basically said that Mommy and Daddy are not worried about us catching it, but we have to do our part to make sure other people don't get it. We have to stay home and play together. Our job is to stay home."

The mom's approach with her preschool-age children is appropriate, according to advice given by Jennifer Daily, a social worker whose Housatonic, Mass. practice solely works with children and their families.

Daily suggests comparing the unexpected time at home to sick days; while no one is feeling sick, families still need to stay at home without seeing their friends or other family members so as not to get anyone else sick. She also said to reassure children that there are great doctors in Massachusetts, and government representation working to keep us safe and healthy.

"Constantly reassure them that there are smart adults working hard," Daily said.

For children ages 8 and older, Daily suggests finding a metaphor to help them understand.

"One of my clients is a sports fan, so, I said, 'You know how when you walk into a baseball stadium it's easy to get in, but hard to get out because everyone is trying to leave at once?'" Daily recalled. "That's why we're doing all of this, so the doctors can take care of a couple of people at a time. We're just trying to slow things down."

Teens 'annoyed'

While keeping smaller children at home busy and engaged might seem the most challenging to parents in the thick of these days at home — one parent told this reporter she was growing tired of playing "cruise director," alluding to constantly finding new, fun things to do — social worker Abigail Reifsnyder points out that helping teenagers through this time is even more difficult.

"The much harder group to talk to is teenagers," Reifsnyder said from her North Adams office. "Because they are — it's developmentally appropriate — very self-centered, and, at least the ones we've been talking to, indicate they're not anxious; they're annoyed."

Reifsnyder suggests reminding them this isn't about them, but rather their older relatives or friends who perhaps have underlying health conditions such as asthma or diabetes. Also, if your teen wants or needs to spend more time alone in their room, let them, she said, and use that time to do something for yourself.

"I would tell parents to let them do it, and do not think that this is going to have a lifelong damaging impact on their kids," she said.

While social media is important for some teens to keep in contact with friends, Daily recommends monitoring the kind of information they are absorbing about the virus, to make sure what they are reading is factual. She is finding that, with many of her teen clients, untrue rumors are being shared among peers, perpetuating the idea that this virus doesn't affect them.

"We need to make it more serious for teenagers, to say, 'Listen, that is an untrue rumor; young people are getting sick, too, young people are needing respirators, too,'" Daily said.

Sticking to routines

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No matter what age your children are, experts agree that routine still is extremely important. Daily recommends keeping bedtime routines the same, waking up the same time every morning and making sure students still get dressed and brush their teeth, even if they aren't leaving the house. This will make it easier on everyone when students eventually are allowed back in school. Jim Mucia, division director of child and adolescent services at The Brien Center, said this is a time when families can reconnect.

"Really focus on family time and view this as an opportunity for families to grow closer," he said. "Families in this hectic society talk about, think about, worry about not enough family time; view this as an opportunity to get closer. Try not to catastrophize the situation, or blow it out of proportion."

Mucia recommends keeping good, close parental contact — especially for younger children. For teens who might be struggling with all the family time, Daily suggests committing them to walking the family pet at least once a day, alone.

Daily also urged parents to help their children understand that while it's great to enjoy a walk together, or a hike in the woods, social distancing is about staying away from others outside the immediate family household. So, before you go out to play baseball at a park, make sure your children understand that no one else outside the family can touch the ball, setting those expectations before leaving the house.

"Really verbalize this is not something they have to be anxious about, but it is something we have to be serious about," Daily said. "It's important to take care of each other and our community. We need to stay in our family bubble."

Signs that your child might not be coping well with the change include more pushback or resistance than they normally would display, according to Daily. Smaller children might express more tummy aches, pickiness or irritability.

For some students, Daily said, this disruption to routine is extremely difficult.

"We have a highly stressed community on our very best days in the Berkshires," Daily said. "We have a lot of people living in the margins, a fairly high rate of domestic violence. If you're lucky enough to go to a grocery store and stock up, that's a blessing to be grateful for; many families don't have the money to do that. It's important for all us not having to deal with stressors to donate cash to food pantries."

There also are family members, children and spouses who are stuck at home who are not safe.

"If you're not dealing with an unsafe home, you're very, very lucky right now," Daily said.

Even during statewide closures, the victim hotlines run by the Elizabeth Freeman Center and the Berkshire District Attorney's Office still are able to offer services to those in need.

There also are other resources for children and family members dealing with stress and anxiety due to the extreme changes to routine. Many private, professional therapists are able to do online teletherapy, Daily said, and The Brien Center is available for phone conversations, or the crisis team can be called in extreme situations.

According to Daily, it's important for parents to take care of themselves through all of this.

"If you are in a partnered relationship, give each other a chance every day to give each other space, connect with your partner after the kids go to bed. If you don't have the luxury of having a partner, FaceTime with friends, figure out a way to connect. Single parents are going to be under much more stress."

While there will be days this might be difficult, Reifsnyder recommends getting back to basics: cooking with your children, playing board games and curling up to watch a movie together to make the best out of the situation.

"This could be a really good opportunity for parents to get to know their children better," she said.

Lindsey Hollenbaugh is managing editor of features at The Berkshire Eagle.