It’s a long-standing joke that new parents wish babies came with instruction manuals. Being a first-time parent of a newborn can be mind-boggling, to say the least. In the last few weeks, parents have wished for an instruction manual again, even though the newborn stage was long ago.
It can be overwhelming to think about the changes that have occurred in our lives since the pandemic began. The state of our economy, our jobs, our health, and our children’s schooling may be some of the top anxieties and fears. This is hard, and there are no instruction manuals for this season. Children are also likely affected by the confusion and chaos we are all experiencing.
When talking with children and teens about their own fears, anxieties, concerns and thoughts, here’s a few tips to follow:
1. Speak to their heart
Every child needs to know that their parent(s) will see them when they are in distress and be there for them. They will not be alone; they will be safe. We must attune to their emotions and respond in a way that is gentle and kind. This will ensure their heart is cared for.
It is hard to know what to say to our kids about the virus and the quarantine. A reliable way to know what conversations to have is through attunement to their emotions. Attuned parents are aware parents. Pay attention to them, see them, notice when your child seems to be feeling sad, afraid, discouraged or frustrated.
Attunement is followed by responsiveness. Once you notice your child having some hard emotions, use that as an opportunity to have a conversation in response. They may need some time before they open up, but this is your opportunity to pursue their heart.
2. Speak on their terms
Most kids are not likely going to sit down for a one on one conversation. You will likely find it more effective to have a discussion while you are engaging them in other ways, most likely a physical activity. During the quarantine, great options are going on a walk together, playing a game, throwing a football, or doing a craft project. My personal favorite is taking walks.
I use this approach in my counseling practice. Getting a child to open up using only their words is challenging. Engage them with a game or activity and the words can begin to flow. For the younger ages, a picture can truly say a thousand words. Ask them to draw a picture of them with their friends, or a picture of the family, or the house. Then begin to ask questions, and be curious about their imaginative drawings. Notice the colors and ask why they chose them, notice if the people are close together or not, ask why certain things are big and others small. In fact, if you have young children and have never done this before with their drawings, you will be amazed how full of meaning, purpose and thought are the minds of our children as their imaginations find voice through drawing pictures. Praise God! We are fearfully and wonderfully made!
3. Speak words of validation
We want to immediately make our kids feel better and take away their fears or other hard emotions. Rather than going directly to phrases like “It’s okay”, “you don’t have to feel afraid”, or “everything is going to be fine”, validate them.
Acknowledge their difficult emotions. Even if their conclusions are inaccurate or their fears are not rational, they are thinking and connecting dots from their own perspective. What they are feeling is a response to those conclusions. It is important that they feel understood.
Validating can be difficult. The way to effectively validate is to reflect what they are telling you, through a summarizing response “It sounds like you are saying …”, “I hear you say you feel….”, or “I don’t understand; can you tell me more?”
Once you have drawn out what they are feeling and understand why, hold the emotion with them. Sit with them in it. Let them feel their feelings and feel it with them. This is also known as empathy. Empathic connection is a powerful and healing experience. It connects the two of you in a very deep and healing way. It is the comfort your child needs.
4. Speak to Encourage
God has called us to comfort others with the comfort He has given to us (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Therefore, it is vital that you are in fellowship with God on a daily basis, and all the more during the pandemic.As a parent, this is your opportunity to preach the gospel to your child — by demonstrating your faith in God’s faithful promises. As adults, our human impulse is to run from hard news or difficult emotions, or to burst with anger and frustration, but modeling the gospel to our children should look differently. Teaching our children that it’s okay to feel strongly, but let’s trust the God who created all emotions to sustain us through our fears.
It is hard to know what to say to our children about quarantine and the global pandemic. What do they need to know? What should we keep from them? The gauge for those conversations is their hearts, as we see expressed through their emotions. These moments provide a window for carefully drawn out words and conversations, true opportunities more valuable than gold to connect with our children and to hold their precious hearts.
During this global pandemic and quarantine, could this unique parenting opportunity be a blessing from God to connect us with our kids more deeply? I believe so, and I believe that for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose, Good is Ahead, and let us speak that to ourselves and our children daily.