Recently, my husband and I made a decision to stop talking about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in front of our children. During this time of isolation, it became very apparent that the phrase "kids are like sponges" was incredibly true. I'd seen firsthand how young kids soak things in and let them out at the least opportune times . . . who hasn't had their toddler yell the F-word at the grocery store? (No? Just me?) But seeing the impact of our conversations on them was eye-opening.
The tipping point, though, was when our 2-and-a-half-year-old son asked, "Mommy, is the coronavirus gone yet so we can go to the mall?"
We first realized our 6-year-old daughter might have been hearing more than we wanted her to when her night terrors returned. After a long battle with them, she'd finally had a few months of good sleep. Then, we found her once again standing up in bed, screaming, sweating, and sometimes shaking in terror in her sleep, without any recollection of it in the morning. We learned after her first bout of these symptoms that night terrors are usually brought on by stress and anxiety. And what is more stressful and anxiety inducing than having your life turned upside down and being forced into isolation? Before school was cancelled, she asked us if she needed to wear a mask to school. That should have been our first clue that she was absorbing and worrying more than she needed to. And when the terrors started again, we tried to be more mindful of the information she was getting. She seemed OK during the day, but the night terrors continued, which told us differently.
The tipping point, though, was when our 2-and-a-half-year-old son asked, "Mommy, is the coronavirus gone yet so we can go to the mall?" My mouth gaped and my heart broke as my baby so matter-of-factly called the virus by name and asked such an innocent question. We'd been trying to talk in code when we did discuss the state of affairs, but I realized that it wasn't doing much good. After holding back tears and gently reassuring his chubby, inquisitive face that we could go to the mall as soon as coronavirus is gone, I texted my husband (who's an essential worker and still working) to say, "OK, really no more pandemic talk in front of the kids." Even when they are watching a favorite show and we think they couldn't possibly be listening to us, we had to stop. And honestly, not talking about isolation and COVID-19 has been the best decision we've made for the mental health of our family.
So when my toddler didn't just ask "why can't we go to the mall?" or "when is the next time we can go to the mall?" I realized he was hearing and absorbing enough to know there was a reason life looks so different. That's when we made an even more conscious effort to not talk about it in front of our kids, not even in "code." It hasn't been easy, because it's our life right now, so in order to not accidentally talk about the scary stuff while the kids are around, we agreed to limit our intake of information to a few trusted news sources. We actually found that the less inundated we are with all the information, the less triggered we are to talk about it all.
However, because my husband is a first responder, most of our seemingly nonchalant conversations about his day at work involve discussing whether he has enough travel disinfectant wipes and where he needs to undress and leave his shoes when he gets home. There is more risk of exposure for him, so we have to figure out how to safely deal with that as a family. But discussing what he saw at work that day or how one of his coworkers is sick would do nothing but worry the kids that something might happen to their daddy. While it may be true that he is at higher risk, I don't think certain truths need to be "accidentally" shared with children under 6.
Of course, we've discussed the pandemic with our oldest (while the youngest is present), but in an age-appropriate manner that informs her without scaring her. We go for walks, which we've found to be a nonthreatening environment to open up discussion. We ask her thoughts, what she's noticing that's been different for us lately, what's been the same, or why she thinks these things are changing. We allow her to lead the conversation so we can address her concerns. And when we share some of the realities, we acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of unknowns right now, and lots of things we miss, like our friends and teachers, cousins, grandparents, and our simple routines. We encourage her to share any feelings of worry or sadness with us. But we no longer have any conversations about COVID-19 in front of her that don't purposely involve her.
Children will emulate what they see, and if they see us worried and panicked or keeping secrets, they will be worried and panicked.
To help keep them calm, we give the kids anxiety outlets during the day and maintain our bedtime routine at night, which are things that her doctor suggested to ease her anxiety when her night terrors first began last year. But I had been so busy worrying about what kind of impact homeschooling and isolation had been having on our oldest, that I wasn't focusing on how the littlest member of our family was coping. Realizing that both kids were taking it all in simply by watching us is what made us think hard about how we are responding to these times.
Children will emulate what they see, and if they see us worried and panicked or keeping secrets, they will be worried and panicked. Does it mean I stay calm, cool, and collected all the time? Definitely not. I've had my fair share of panic attacks, which thankfully happen when I am alone, so the little eyes haven't been present. But my husband and I have a look we give each other if we do slip up and begin sharing something that is might worry a 6- and 2-year-old.
We don't pretend everything is fine, but we are safe, we are together, and we're healthy. As parents, we're a safe place for our kids to share their feelings and fears, ask questions, and be open. It's important for me as a mom not to downplay their feelings right now or pretend things are "normal." They can grieve the loss of play dates, of seeing their teacher, or of taking the spring break trip we were looking forward to. These losses should be acknowledged — just in the right way. Now that we've been more vigilant about the conversations we have, our daughter's night terrors have subsided and our toddler hasn't asked about the virus in a while. We're finding that as long as we include the kids in the right types of conversations, don't talk about the scary stuff when they're around, and are open and honest with them about the changes we're facing, we are all breathing a little easier. And that's a big win for us right now.