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Heffner column: Telling the story

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Crookston Times

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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What story can parents tell their children to help them make sense of the changes in their lives during this time? Children are being restricted from what had been the major ingredients of their lives, school, playmates, park activities. How do we explain this to them?

Part of the problem is that we ourselves are not able to make much sense of it. The media gives us statistics about illness, death, hospitals and testing; changing timelines about the course of the virus in various parts of the country; various theories about possibilities and timing of a vaccine. Finding meaning usually means finding some central coherence to events, which is absent for many of us right now.

As parents, we are the ones responsible for imposing the various restrictions of which we are not the cause. From insisting on mask wearing to prohibiting play dates, children experience this as parental rule making creating a familiar rebellion scenario. A serious problem is parents being put in the position of decision maker about something as central as whether to send children back to school in order to return to work, or to stay home out of concern for children’s health.

How to talk to a child about these disturbances in life depends on the age and developmental stage of the child. The nature of time plays a major role. So many adults express the feeling of living in a time bubble with the same routine one day after the next making the passage of time remote. For young children who have not yet mastered time concepts, basing explanations in terms of time is questionable. Restrictions of two or three days can seem forever to a young child.

It seems reasonable to try to explain to children the need to prevent contagion. We don’t want them to get sick. Children have experienced staying home because of illness or schools cautioning about an outbreak of contagious diseases. However, as concrete thinkers, young children point out that they are not sick. After several days it seems reasonable to them that any danger has passed.

Teenagers accustomed to greater physical independence, may assert themselves in decision making regarding health rules set in the pandemic. Here the familiar dynamic of the adolescent rebellion against parental supervision comes into play. However, the possibility also exists for enlisting the young person’s interest in taking a more adult role in social responsibility.

Numerous parents have spoken about their children’s interest in the larger social issues receiving attention such as the protests for racial justice and the role of the police. Some young people may become interested in the story of how COVID-19 was identified and in learning about the current search for a vaccine. Others might become interested in keeping a diary about life in the pandemic to look back at in the future.

The best way to know what is on a child’s mind and how to respond is by listening to his questions but also by asking for his story of what is going on. In that way you can correct any distortions and supply a simple story in its place. Many images appear on our TV screen, some of which may be frightening to a young child. Children react to events in ways that may be different than we imagined. Hearing their version of events helps us know how best to respond.

We can’t protect children from life’s stressful experiences. We can only listen and respond to their concerns, helping them develop the mental and emotional muscle they need to confront whatever life holds.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.