Parenting When the World’s On Fire: 5 Ways to Help Kids Through Stressful Times

A teen recently told me that it feels as if the world’s on fire. That image is a perfect metaphor for the fear and uncertainty everyone is currently feeling. Unfortunately, parents have the added pressure of navigating this fire while knowing their kids are looking to them for reassurance. Luckily, the playbook for helping kids through a crisis remains the same even when nothing is normal about the current crisis.

During stressful times, we need two major things: to feel heard and to feel safe. Providing these things look different depending on each family, but here are some tips all parents can follow.

1. Kids Need to Feel Heard

Let’s start with the need to feel heard. Kids need permission, time, and space to process their feelings. Not just the easy feelings but all the feelings. They need to be able to say how they’re worried or scared or bored or, at my house, mad because their brother ate all of the salted caramels.

2. Kids Need Their Feelings Validated

After the kids have talked about their feelings, how should parents respond? This is where the “feeling heard” part begins. Parents need to validate their kids’ emotions by mirroring what they hear. They can say, “You’re right, it’s a scary time,” and “I’m with you. It stinks that everything’s cancelled.”

3. Kids Need Answers, Even If It’s “I don’t know.”

Now, what about all the questions? You know, the ones about how long this will last, why is this happening, and what is coronavirus anyways. Adults sometimes believe that shielding their kids from hard realities is protecting them. Actually, the opposite is true. Keeping information from kids increases their anxiety and confusion. Kids do better when situations are explained to them in an age-appropriate and honest manner. Kids need answers to their questions no matter how big or little the question is. Even an answer of “I don’t know; we’ll figure it out,” is perfectly fine. Think about it – we all feel better when Dr. Anthony Fauci answers questions, and he often says he doesn’t know.

4. Kids Need to Feel Secure

The next part of the crisis playbook is the need to feel safe. This is a lofty goal in unsettling times, but parents can help their family feel secure. They can explain what’s going to be different over the next few weeks and what will stay the same. It’s important for families’ schedules to remain relatively consistent. Everyone should practice healthy habits like exercising, reading, eating well and having good sleep hygiene. Families can rely on their religious or spiritual practices for hope and comfort. They can also ensure all family members are on board with following the recommendations of the medical professionals like hand-washing and social distancing.

5. Everyone Needs to Practice Self-Care

Lastly, everyone needs to practice self-care. Parents: talk to each other about how you’re doing, take breaks from your family, and give yourself permission to lower the parenting bar. If needed, take a social media break, especially if your self-worth is being impacted by those perfect Instagram photos of families appearing to be “sheltering in place” better than the rest of us. Remind yourself that those cozy family pictures are edited versions of that family’s life. Don’t compare your real life to their highlight reel. If you want to compare your family to another family, try mine. My teen boys spent the week living on x-box and a big box of frozen corn dogs. But next week, we’ll hit our social distancing stride.

Join Valerie Larson-Howard for a Facebook Live Q&A with TulsaKids Magazine on Friday, March 27 at 10 a.m. She will be discussing how to help kids cope through the COVID-19 pandemic. Get more details here.

Valerie Larson-Howard is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over twenty years of experience providing therapy to kids, teens, and adults. She is also a mom to three teen boys. For more information about her therapy practice, check out her website: valerielarsonhoward.com


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