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When Kids Ask, "Why?"

Many parents may feel overwhelmed by the flood of “why” questions that they receive from their kids regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic. These questions can range in topic and extend to the minute details of life. Their questions may gradually become more complex, frequent, and difficult to answer. Parents often scour the internet to find the best ways to adequately explain this unprecedented crisis. Just when a parent sufficiently answers one “why” question, their child may suddenly generate a plethora of follow up “why” questions. Parents quickly can feel as though they have been mistakenly cast as the one person head of a Coronavirus Task Force. What can parents say when they do not know what to say? Children between the ages of 5-12 may benefit from responses that meet the following three guidelines: Just Enough; Just for Now; and Just Because.

Telling Kids Just What They Need to Know

Just Enough. Questions are a lot like Gremlins. Gremlins rapidly reproduce if they get wet or eat any type of food after midnight. The underlying fear or doubt that festers beneath the surface of each question will also rapidly reproduce if children are provided information that is inaccurate or poorly explained. Don’t wait for your child’s friend or the news to explain what is happening in the world around them. Tell them enough of the truth in a way that they will understand. Strongly consider providing answers that are concise, concrete, and tailored to a child’s emotional and development level. Strongly avoid using metaphors or abstract terms to explain the current crisis. Consider sharing information in small doses to ensure that your child is able to fully comprehend the information that you are trying to share. Encourage your child to keep asking questions.

Focus on the Next Practical Steps

Just for Now: Resist the temptation to provide false hope or false estimates about the length of this crisis. Children under the age of 12 often struggle to separate “maybe” answers from their expectation that it “should” happen. Consider focusing answers on the next practical steps that family members can take that day or during that week. Avoid scheduling any non-essential activities or events that is longer than one week into the future. Create a “Temporary Normal” within the home by keeping or implementing daily routines and regular structure within your home. Build structured times within a child’s routine to provide information regarding changes and allow opportunities for questions. Be prepared to talk with your child often about their thoughts and feelings. Allow your child to grieve or experience intense emotions relating to this tough season at their own pace.

Help Kids Learn How to Understand the Unexpected

 Just Because: On Thanksgiving of 1983, the writers of Sesame Street decided to use the passing of one of its original human characters to teach children about the difficult topic of death. These writers did more than just be the first to broach the topic of death in children’s television. It set the standard for dealing with difficult topics on children’s television with the simple and profound answer of “Just Because.” So, if all else fails in providing a sufficient answer, then fall back on the “Just Because” answer. The reason that the world has changed is “Just Because,” and “Just because this is the way that it has to be right now.” Children may often forget to heed the simplest of instructions from their parents. Children rarely forget how their parents respond to adversity. Remember that parents act as a barometer of sorts for children about the outside world. Children listen the most to things that their parents do not verbalize with words. Parents have the incredible opportunity to communicate and model with their actions that just because something unexpected happens doesn’t mean that a person cannot find meaning. It also doesn’t mean that the power of one’s choices and behaviors have been totally stripped away. Parents, fill in the blanks following “Just Because.”

Learn more about our CHI Health Behavioral Care services.

Joseph Nelson, LIMHP, PLADC
Joseph Nelson, LIMHP, PLADC

Joseph Nelson LIMHP, PLADC is a Mental Health Therapist at CHI Health. 

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