Key Takeaways

  • It’s important to really listen to your child when asking them about their concerns, both to ensure you can address them fully, and to identify other areas your child might be worried about that otherwise might not come up.
  • It can be valuable to use a “Head, Heart, Hand” approach to communicating with your child – why the parent is doing their job and why it’s important, how the parent’s work is connected to their love for their children, and how they are doing their best to be safe in their roles.
  • Help your children learn healthy ways to acknowledge and manage scary feelings that may seem overwhelming and model the kinds of activities you do as a parent to cope with similar feelings.

While many families and children are self-quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic, with parents working from home and children utilizing virtual learning, in many other cases, parents who are considered essential workers still need to physically report to work. This can cause stress and worry in children, who may not entirely understand why their parents have to leave each day, when they know others are staying home.

Paula Rauch, MD, child psychiatrist and director of the Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program (Parenting At a Challenging Time) at Massachusetts General Hospital, answered questions parents may have on explaining their roles as essential workers to children and talking through the fears children might have about their family’s safety.

Q: What are some common concerns children may have right now if their parents are essential workers? (medical, first responders, grocery, delivery, etc.)

Rauch: The best way to understand a child’s worries is to ask a child directly. This can be as simple as asking your child, “Do you know what I am doing while I am at work?” and clarifying what the parent is actually doing. This can be followed by asking “Do you have questions or worries about me being at work?”

Younger children may be most worried about not having the parent present or may misunderstand what their parent is and is not doing during the day. Some of their worries may be heard during their imaginative play alone or with siblings, in addition to an answer to a direct question.

Older children may have more specific concerns, including whether the parent is safe while engaged in work, their own safety at home with the parent not present, or even whether the parent may be bringing home the virus from their work place. Some may also express distress that all parents are not sharing equally in the essential frontline work and risk.

Q: How can parents best speak to their children about these concerns?

Rauch: When asking your child about their concerns directly, actively listen and show interest in learning more from the child. Take the opportunity to lessen confusion and offer reassurance about how you are being as safe as possible in your role and in your workplace.

Parents should not be surprised if, when they ask about concerns related to COVID-19, they hear about unrelated concerns from their child as well. This is a valuable opportunity to help address these worries. During these times of high stress, parents may otherwise miss the signs that a child has a different set of concerns than what the parent imagines as front and center.

Q: You’ve mentioned a “head, heart, hand” approach to speaking with your children about your job when you are an essential worker. Could you elaborate?

Rauch: I encourage parents to share their important family values using a Head, Heart, Hand approach:

  • Head: What the parent is doing and why it is important or of value
  • Heart: Connect what the parent is doing to love of the child
  • Hand: Describe how the parent is implementing the action in the safest way and relying on personal expertise and the skills of trusted others

Q: Can you share examples of how parents can use this communication method with their child when they are an essential worker?

Rauch: Using this “head, heart, hand” family values communication, a parent who is a nurse might say:

Head: “I am working at the hospital as a nurse caring for COVID-19 patients.”

Heart: “I love you enough to provide the kind of care to my patients that I would want our family to receive if any of us were sick, because this is the kind of world I want you to live in.”

Hand: “I am good at my job, I am taking every precaution to stay safe, and I trust the medical team that I work with to take safety seriously too.”

For a grocery worker, the heart component might be, “I love you enough to work to make sure that people have access to healthy food just as I want our family to have healthy food, because that is the kind of community I want you to live in.” For a service member, police or firefighter: “I love you enough to put myself in harm’s way so that you can live in a safer world” and “I am good at my job, do it as safely as possible and work on a team with people who are good at their jobs and who I trust.”

Q: How can parents alleviate concerns children may have around their parent’s safety or their own safety?

Rauch: It is natural for parents and children to have worries about safety at these times and sometimes more so when a parent has a job that includes risk. It isn’t possible to alleviate all concerns, but it is helpful to talk about both the ways that safety is a priority and communicate that it is normal to have worried feelings. Parents may suggest that children think of these big feelings as coming in waves and learn not to be scared of them. Encourage them to let the feelings waves run through until there is another feeling on the other side. It’s important to help your children learn healthy ways to deal with hard feelings too. This is especially powerful when parents acknowledge that they have big feelings and waves at times, and share their strategies to cope, such as listening to music, exercising, doing yoga, baking, watching TV and snuggling or reading a book.

Q: Are there any additional resources you would recommend to parents who are essential workers?

Rauch: There are many virtual resources available to assist parents in talking about the current pandemic challenges with children and supports that encourage healthy responses to this high stress environment.

Friends, family and other parents are another great resource. Peers who understand a parent’s current experiences can often offer helpful attuned advice and an important feeling of shared worries and community. Virtual meetings with other parents can be valuable for getting encouragement to focus on some of the solutions; not ignoring the difficulties but looking for a few little positives. Offering help as a parent yourself with these methods, even in little ways, can offset the difficult feelings of helplessness many may feel during this time.