Key Takeaways

  • Let kids know their thoughts and feelings are important
  • Be direct and honest about your feelings about school closures
  • Help kids to be comfortable with any sad feelings and uncertainty

As schools announce extended closures due to COVID-19, parents and caregivers are having tough conversations with children about their current circumstances. It's best to be direct and honest with children about school closures. According to Lisa Price, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, it's best to let them know that even though this might be surprising or disappointing, the family will get through this difficult time together.

"Speak in straightforward, simple language with your child's development in mind," says Dr. Price.

Dr. Price offers eight tips on how to talk about school closures with kids.

1. Encourage your Child to Ask Questions

Pace the conversation and give the child a chance to ask questions, as their concerns might not be what you expect. For example, you might be concerned about academics while your child has questions about the class pet or belongings they left in the classroom.

If they switch to a more familiar, non-COVID topic, it might be their way of pausing the discussion in order to process. While it is important to respect their wishes at the time, do not be afraid to bring it up again at another point.

"They will also return to the matter when they are comfortable," says Dr. Price. "And then you can address their questions and thoughts."

2. Acknowledge their Feelings

Kids might be scared, sad, worried or altogether disinterested. Listen to their concerns and be responsive in a caring, compassionate way. You want children to know that their thoughts and feelings are valid and welcome. Strive to send the message that what they think is important.

3. Embrace Uncertainty, Offer Reassurance

If your child asks when there will be a cure or when they can go back to school, do not give false promises. Be honest and let them know you do not have the answer. Reassure them that people are working hard to answer those important questions.

"By letting them know you do not have an answer, you are teaching them that it is okay not to know something," says Dr. Price. At the same time, you can look with them at the answers you do know, whether it be about aspects of next year or other parts of your child’s life.

It is normal as a parent and/or caregiver to want to have all the answers and fix all the problems, but being able to sit with sadness and uncertainty is a key part of parenting. This is an important life lesson that builds a foundation for resilience later in life, says Dr. Price.

4. Look for the Helpers

Price suggests listening to the famous advice from Fred Rogers about looking for the helpers. Tell your kids there are many people working together to help heal people affected by the virus. Let them know that society unites during hard times and help manifests in many forms.

"Washing hands, wearing a mask and physical distancing are forms of 'helping' and make a big difference," says Dr. Price.

5. Consider Temperament and Learning Style

The ways that children express the impact of school closures may vary widely depending on their age, personality, and learning style.

"Some young kids may be quite happy to be at home, particularly those who are happy to have more time with a parent or a caregiver," says Dr. Price.

Kids who are shy or socially anxious might actually feel more relaxed and content right now. They may or may not miss friends. They might not be as bothered by the change as other kids. Kids with learning differences might find the slower pace of school at home helpful while others might find the decreased structure problematic, says Dr. Price.

6. Consider Boredom

Kids might show disinterest or lack of engagement because of school closures. Expecting some boredom in this challenging time is helpful for parents to anticipate and discuss with their kids, allowing youth to adjust their expectations. At the same time, Dr. Price suggests the following strategies for keeping kids engaged:

  • Integrate the child's favorite hobbies and activities into the day
  • Help children connect with their peers while physical distancing
  • Maintain a sleep schedule, even though the days are more flexible
  • Set a structure for incorporating exercise into the day
  • Limit exposure to sensational news

7. Look for Warning Signs

"For example, signs that a child might be experiencing a more serious struggle could include new or persistent difficulty with separation when the parent or caregiver leaves the home to run errands," says Dr. Price.

It is also important to notice if the child is:

  • Not enjoying the things that usually bring them pleasure
  • Irritable
  • Experiencing sleep disturbances
  • Worrying excessively
  • Displacing their fears about the virus by persistently focusing on a small matter such as a minor injury to themselves or a pet

8. Give Yourself A Break

"Parents and caregivers need to know that they have their own limits," says Dr. Price. "They are human. They will be tired, frustrated and irritable at times."

Parents and caregivers need to make a conscious effort to pause and find ways to take care of themselves. Take a walk outside or even just retreat to a room for a private moment to breathe.