How to Talk to Your Kids about the New Normal
A three-prong approach for your home.
These are confusing, difficult times and our kids are watching us and picking up on how we are feeling. If we remain calm, it will help them to do the same.
It’s important to have an open, ongoing dialogue with our children about what is happening and how we are responding to it. We can learn a lot from the three steps our forefather Jacob took to prepare for his dangerous encounter with Esav.
- He prepared for war. He took all possibilities into account and took necessary steps to combat what may come.
- He prayed to God.
- He sent gifts to ingratiate himself to Esav.
God charges us to take responsibility and accomplish things in this world. It’s up to us to put in our effort, hishtadlut in Hebrew, to achieve our goal. The outcome is in God’s hands. In this way, we work in tandem with the Almighty. Sometimes it will seem our success was a direct result of our efforts. Other times success will come from a totally different avenue. In either case it was our responsible effort that created the opening for God to bless our efforts and bring forth the fruit. God expects us to do our best and trust that what comes is the right result for us.
Some people are scoffing at recommended actions, labeling them as “panicking” or “going overboard.” People respond like this for a variety of reasons: denial, feeling overwhelmed, or some cite their faith in God and explain they have full trust in Him, adding that we do not need to “go nuts.”
Panicking is never a good plan, but here’s the thing: everyone puts in loads of effort every day. If we want to get one of our children into certain school or camp, we do everything possible to make it happen. We look both ways before we cross the street. We go to work. None of us skip going grocery shopping and then open the trunk of our car expecting to find it full of bags of food. We all put in our effort.
It seems to me the resistance is because they have not adjusted to the new normal. We need to do some recalibrating. What was a “reasonable” effort to make towards safety and preparedness two weeks ago isn’t going to cut it today. The silver lining is that having something to do in an unknowable situation can provide some security and grounding.
How can we speak to our children about this fluid, unsettling situation?
It’s empowering to understand that we can help others and that others are looking out for us as well.
Start off by giving children basic information about the virus and talk about what you are doing to be prepared at home and to prevent your family from becoming infected. Talk about what is being done in order to keep everyone safe. It’s a very good time to talk about the concept of “kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh – the entire Jewish people are responsible for one another." It’s empowering to understand that we can help others and that others are looking out for us as well. Take pride in that. Look at the measures the community is doing to protect its high risk members. That’s huge.
Make sure you listen to your kids. Let their questions determine what more to share. Listen for their feelings. Listen to what they are asking about and keep an ear out for what they aren’t quite asking because they are too scared to voice.
Kids feel good when they know that there is order. They expect us to have answers. They get very thrown when we don’t but if we address that honestly, it offers transparency that may prevent them from truly being thrown when it inevitably becomes apparent that we don’t actually know everything.
Include them in the process. Ask them to help make space for the extra soap and beans that you bought. Pour that pepper and water into a bowl and show them how much washing their hands matters. Print a chart that illustrates how much social distancing is projected to make a difference.
Let them see that you’re on top of what you can be on top of. It will give them a sense of security.
Make sure your kids know that you feel that God is the One who is ultimately in control. Pray in front of them, pray with them.
We don’t understand how God runs the world but we know that He does, and while the virus is causing a lot of changes around us, we also believe that there has to be something good in this challenge. It is up to us to bring our positive perspective to the situation. It is up to us to be the best people we can be in challenging circumstances; to try to behave in ways we will be proud of when we, God willing, look back on this in easier times.
Whether you are nervous or not, your child may be. If in your efforts to keep fear at bay you are not speaking about it with them, or if you are repeatedly saying, “We trust in God that we will be fine, we don’t need to do all this stuff,” you may be inadvertently sending the message that this is not something that should be talked about, or that being worried is antithetical to trusting God. They may feel that you are shutting the door and preventing them opening up to you. Alternatively, if you are trying to keep things under control by not speaking with them at length, you are doing a disservice to your ability to address their concerns. We do these things with the best of intentions, but often the cat has already been dancing outside that bag and we need to talk about everything before she gives birth to 12 kittens in the middle of the dining room.
Make space for every feeling.
Kids are smarter than we tend to give them credit for. It is okay to be honest. If you are nervous, you can say so. If you feel that way but continually deny it, your kids likely know that you are not being 100% honest with them and that will give them cause to feel more anxious, eroding their trust in you in the process. Just be sure that if you share with them that you are worried that you also explain what you are doing about it, and model how to best deal with occasionally feeling nervous.
Invite your family to discuss any ways that you can make this situation smooth and sweet. Create a schedule for the day and possibly for areas of the house that family members may want to take turns using. Try to create as much of a sense of normalcy as possible. List all the things that need to get done in the day. For kids who have remote online classes, make sure they have a quiet place with any supplies they will need. As you discuss this, they’ll likely start to share things they have concerns about.
Finding ways to stay connected to others is a priority. Encourage your kids to have phone or video calls with friends. Let them see that others are okay, too. We are still a community even when we can’t go to school or shul. Just like you need to stay connected, they do, too.
It is a mitzvah to be joyful. Let’s try to make this chunk of time more than tolerable. Of course, there will be ups and downs; this is going to be challenging. But the more thought we put into it, even providing some fun, the better off we will be.
Order some games, puzzles, and a bit of everyone’s favorite candy on Amazon. Get Kindles for the readers in your family and download apps that allow you to borrow digital or audio books from your local library. Maybe now is the time stock up on new games. Treat yourselves. Learn new recipes the family will be excited about. Cook together. Come up with creative ways to exercise, maybe a reward system for being consistent.
My mantra for this difficult time is: Don’t worry; DO.
Whenever you find yourself going down the tunnel of anxiety, do something productive. Plan the next day’s activities or check on a friend or relative who lives alone. Count all your toilet paper as a form of mediation, pray, find a new creative game to play (or start that DIY project you have been talking about forever).
After all that “DO-ing” make sure to schedule some naps. Sleep is fuel for the immune system!