“When Will I See My Friends?” How To Talk to Your Children About Covid-19


“When Will I See My Friends?” How To Talk to Your Children About Covid-19

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Three weeks ago, when my daughter’s school announced that they were shutting down for a week to stay safe from the Covid-19 pandemic, I decided to escape with her to my uncle’s cottage in a hill station. After buying a big bottle of medical-grade sanitiser, we caught a night bus and headed out with my parents – ready to bask in the sunshine in the company of five sweet dogs, dig in to fresh fruits and vegetables, as we spent the days doing nothing. We planned to stay for a few days and return when the “corona buzz” died down.

That was not to happen. In fact, the “buzz” has grown into an indefinite fiasco and we are still here. And while I’m grateful for the peace we are enjoying with the views of pristine tea plantations, the uncertainty of our situation, and the world nags me. My husband is in another country and due to travel bans imposed upon us, we don’t know when we are all going to be together as a family. I keep checking in with close friends and family to ease my anxieties. We chat about how we are scraping entertainment out of self-quarantine, complain about our restless parents who struggle to stay put and share the occasional jokes whilst feeling simultaneously guilty for seeking humour at a time like this. But our survival instincts demand a light-heartedness to keep us afloat so we laugh, try to stick to getting basic tasks needed for survival done and then circle back to worrying. Amid all this, there is a sensitive and curious six-year-old to tackle.

At first, my daughter was thrilled to be missing school. She lolled about like a joyful sealion, relieved every time our planned return dates got pushed by a few more days. Her exposure to the topic of the virus had been limited to extensive hygiene lessons at school. I’d heard her talk about bacteria like it was a fascinating new enemy she had to destroy as she lathered her fingers and rinsed thoroughly.

You’ve got to be honest yet sensitive, letting children air their questions and concerns and provide assurance to them.

But the repercussions of the quarantine have taken a toll on her – a child amid adults who can’t seem to look beyond the Covid-19 screen. While the news channels play out alarming stories and we relay messages received about the latest numbers of cases and deaths, we forget that she’s listening too. Reaching a state of frustration, one day at the dinner table she exploded, “You guys are always talking about this corona corona!” It was a hard-hitting moment for all of us and we resolved to be conscious of how much power we gave to our fears.

Her outburst was the most direct expression of her confusion. As I paid attention, I found other clues that showed how much this pandemic affected her psyche despite our best efforts to tuck her away from the madness. At bedtime she asked me, “Will you be alive when I am as big as you are now?”

On a virtual class arranged by her teacher, she grew frustrated with the grainy images of faces and asked when she could return to school. When the house maid’s three-year-old son with a sniffling nose sat beside her on a bean bag to watch cartoons and my mother moved him to a separate chair, her face scrunched with annoyance.

We resolved to be conscious of how much power we gave to our fears.

I was weary of losing my patience while being confined with my daughter but now I am more pained by her lost looks that surface as reactions to our cautious measures.

While we have coping mechanisms and access to information, what about our children who depend on us for assurance? How can we help them process the reality of self-preservation without scaring, or even worse scarring them? How am I supposed to tell my six-year old, whose greatest concern at the moment is a creepy spider hiding somewhere in our room, that I have no idea when this will all be over? That I am not sure when she will be able to see her father and friends again?

Before having the chat with children, psychologists advise parents to find their own sense of calm first. Sounds simple but when we’re cooped in with our loved (yet deeply irritating) ones, it can get overwhelming. But is it fair to pass on our paranoia to them? Must we hack at their capacity to believe in a good world by drilling the current perils of a manmade pandemic?

I keep checking in with close friends and family to ease my anxieties.

This useful UNICEF guide on talking to children about COVID-19 states that “children have a right to truthful information about what’s going on in the world, but adults also have a responsibility to keep them safe from distress.” So you’ve got to be honest yet sensitive, letting them air their questions and concerns, providing assurance while also using the opportunity to highlight how essential compassion is.

My daughter is little but she’s fairly perceptive. She senses the energy among us, listens to conversations even when she is tinkering with toys and having seen two deaths in the past year, understands the basic concept of mortality. But she’s also naïve and optimistic in that sweet way that most of us have long forgotten. Dr Madeline Levin, a psychologist and author, said, “It is important that we do not promote an apocalyptic narrative. Kids this age (five-10) are less self-involved than younger kids, and so they worry about the impact not just on themselves but on others around them.”

So yes, I’ve started talking to her about the coronavirus in a serious but gentle way – how it’s affecting people, why we should be grateful to medical staff, and other ancillary workers who are toiling to keep cities clean, how she can make the most of this time by exploring in the garden. We try to watch the news channel only twice a day instead of having it blaring as background noise throughout. Instead of diverting her mind when she asks me tricky questions, I try to answer them after taking a moment to think. I have scheduled video calls with a few other parents so she gets to see her friends.

As I paid attention, I found other clues that showed how much this pandemic affected my child’s psyche despite my best efforts.

In a way, having a child at this time helps, because as I try to enforce a sense of gratitude in her, it seeps into me – to be empathetic toward those who have less and realise that though we are away from home staying in is in itself a privilege.

Before Ri came along, there were days when I experienced such angst toward humanity that I have wished for the world to end – a glorious armageddon. But motherhood has sprouted a different greed in me and I keep hoping that it isn’t too late. I clutch on to happy stories – of the woman who delivered India’s first testing kit before she delivered her baby, of the 102-year-old Italian grandma who fought the virus – and pray like I’ve never done before. The show must do more than go on, it must be spectacular. My child deserves that much.

This morning we lay in bed for an hour after waking up. She asked me to scratch her back and I obliged with a patience that is usually lacking in my parenting persona. There was nothing to rush for, so we snuggled beneath a warm blanket with my one arm wrapped around her warm belly and the other feeling the curve of her spine.

If the world, indeed, was close to ending, this would be the perfect way to go.