As the coronavirus has spread in communities around the country and school closures have necessitated a significant change in families’ routines, parents may be wondering how to talk with their children about the impact of this change to their daily lives. Since 1979, the New York Life Foundation has focused its support on times of transition for young people: following the loss of a loved one and during the shift from middle to high school. As part of this work, the New York Life Foundation has invested in and partnered with the Trauma and Grief (TAG) Center, which aims to foster resiliency in children exposed to traumas or losses. The following is a conversation with New York Life Foundation President Heather Nesle and Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP, Associate Professor of Psychology, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine and Founder of the TAG Center.
Heather Nesle: How do we help our children navigate these new and unfamiliar circumstances, while ensuring that we are being honest about the reality of the situation?
Julie Kaplow: As parents, we are often faced with the very difficult challenge of reassuring our children during times of stress, while acknowledging that bad things can and do happen in this world. This is the challenge we are now confronted with during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on existing research and clinical work in the overlapping fields of trauma and disaster response, we have some idea of how children are likely to react to the pandemic and what we, as caregivers and parents, can do to support them.
Heather Nesle: What should we expect from our kids?
Julie Kaplow: Children and adolescents are likely to respond in different ways to the pandemic as a function of their age, developmental stage, and cues from their social environment. Young children in particular are extremely attuned to their parents’ reactions, and their own anxiety is often a reflection of what they are seeing in their caregivers.
Heather Nesle: Are there different responses to the pandemic that are associated with different age groups besides young children?
Julie Kaplow: Yes, there are. Preschool-aged children, school-aged children and adolescents are likely to show developmental differences in how they react to environmental stress associated with the pandemic.
Preschool-aged children may show distress upon separation from caregivers (e.g., being afraid to go in certain rooms by themselves, wanting to sleep with parents, not wanting to be left with a babysitter), developmental regressions (e.g., eating, toileting, speech/language difficulties), increased oppositional behavior or temper tantrums and increased tearfulness.
School-aged children may develop new fears or worries that may or may not be related to the virus (e.g., fear of the dark, fear of loud noises), difficulty sleeping, increased nightmares, aggression or irritability, somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches) and increased clinginess toward caregivers.
Adolescents may experience lethargy or apathy, social withdrawal (beyond “normal” social distancing), difficulties sleeping or changes in eating habits, irritability or increased moodiness or hopelessness about the future
Heather Nesle: How can we help our children to cope?
Julie Kaplow: Caregivers can help their children to cope with the pandemic by remembering the “Six S’s”:
Heather Nesle: Is there anything else parents can do during this difficult time?
Julie Kaplow: The only predictable part of life is change. The ability to adapt to a “new normal” in the face of a pandemic will require accepting the ambiguity of life, knowing that we can only control our own reactions (and not necessarily the environment itself), and doing our best to be present for our children when they need us the most. The coming months can be filled with “teachable moments” for our children, including how to effectively cope with stress and how to focus on the things that really matter such as health, relationships, and doing our part to keep our community safe from harm.
Julie Kaplow, PhD, ABPP, is a licensed clinical psychologist and board certified in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. In 2012, Dr. Kaplow founded the Trauma and Grief (TAG) Center, a designated Treatment and Service Adaptation Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, specializing in childhood trauma and bereavement. This role involved providing oversight of evidence-based assessment, treatment, and research with traumatized and bereaved youth and families, and developing and disseminating trauma- and bereavement-informed “best practices” to community providers nationwide. A portion of her work is funded by the New York Life Foundation.
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