Breaking the news

February 8, 2021

Since the start of the quarantine in March 2020, parents have faced the unprecedented task of explaining an abstract, complicated virus and its ever-changing consequences to their children.

Kids often sense a major issue or source of stress through implicit changes to their environments, even before they are explicitly informed of it by their caregivers. By picking up on fluctuations in the emotions and body language of those around them or overhearing the anxious tones underscoring adult conversations about the virus, children often internalize those fears.

“There’s a lot of fear,” Dominguez said. “They might not even know what they’re scared of because they haven’t held it or seen it.”

Children are only capable of expressing their adopted fears in the limited capacity and logic they have developed thus far, which mirrors their minimal understanding of the issue itself. When they’re young, enemies such as abstract viruses are too complex for their still-developing thought process, so their minds tend to translate it into something more tangible.

Dominguez described how one preschooler refused to go downstairs by herself after learning about the existence of the virus. In this 4-year-old’s case, the virus was more comprehensible as an intruder in her house, which she could avoid by never being alone downstairs.

“Children are egocentric, thinking only about themselves, so they might worry that they are at fault for the virus and feel they have to do the right thing or somebody will get sick,” Dominguez said. “They make up a scary situation in their minds because they know something’s up, but they don’t quite know what it is.”

In order to prevent situations like these, Dominguez recommends that parents talk about the virus in the presence of their kids but not the gravity of its effects. She advises parents to make the situation more concrete and positive by discussing what scientists and healthcare professionals are doing to improve the situation, as well as how everyone can take care of themselves.

“The younger you go, the more confusing the virus becomes because it’s airborne, and you can’t see or touch it,” Dominguez explained.

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