Talking to Toddlers about Difficult Events: How to Navigate Uncharted Territory
Our Beginners Division Leader, Becky Alukonis, sent this message to families as a resource during the COVID-19 crisis. We wanted to share this resource and make it available to anyone looking for advice on how to talk to children about the pandemic—and any other difficult event.
Dear Beginner families,
I hope this finds you all safe and well. It is hard to fathom how much has changed in such little time. For all the joys it brings, the journey of parenthood is undoubtedly complicated and challenging as is—never mind when we are faced with unprecedented circumstances. Your children may be questioning the “why” behind these notable changes in their daily routines and norms, and you may be finding yourself uncertain of what to say. And that’s okay. I’ve admittedly been struggling with what advice or guidance to offer because this is such uncharted territory.
Your answer will likely be guided by your child’s developmental stage—which varies greatly—and personality, as well as your parenting approach. My daughter was a little over three years old when our neighborhood had to shelter in place during the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing. As a parent, I have never shied away from sometimes using “because I said so/because I told you so” as an explanation. However, given the seriousness of the situation, the fact that the weather was beautiful and beckoning to come out and play, and that Madeline was accustomed to accessing the yard, we offered more of a rationale. While I don’t recall the exact specifics, we probably said something to the extent of: “The police said we need to stay inside because they are looking for someone and it will be easier for them to find the person if we are not outside.” I’m always in favor of an answer that gives me a little wiggle room. I don’t remember if Madeline asked “why are they looking for someone,” but if she did, I would have likely decided not to make her worried/anxious and said I did not know. If she had asked “when can I go outside,” I likely would have said I didn’t know, but the police will tell us when we can. While I don’t recall my specific words, I remember my actions like it was yesterday. Since we could not go outside, we made brownies. We live right on the Watertown line and when we heard the sirens and caught a quick glimpse of what was unfolding on the news, we closed the curtains, switched to a children’s program, turned the TV way up and had “family TV time.”
While the two situations are vastly different, I hope there may be some “takeaways” from my experience to help you navigate the “whys” should they arise. You may find it helpful to:
Start with a concise, but factual answer. If your child has subsequent questions that you are unprepared to answer, it is okay to say you need some time to think about it and will get back to them later.
Reference the doctors and medical professionals. For example: “The doctors want everyone to stay healthy. The doctors say we should wash our hands and be at home to stay healthy.”
Remind your child that by listening to the doctors, we are helping them and others.
Acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. If your child mentions missing their family members/friends, one response could be: “I understand. I miss my family members/friends too. Can you tell me more about it?” You may then want to follow-up with an activity, like drawing a picture for the family member/friend.
Reassure your child that they are loved and you are here for them. While we can’t promise them that no one they know will get sick, we can reassure them that the doctors will work hard to help them feel better if they do get sick.
I encourage you to reach out to your classroom teachers for more student-specific guidance and support. I also found the this article very helpful.
Please feel free to reach out to me and/or your classroom teachers for additional support.