How Are You Telling Children the Story of the Pandemic?

How will children make sense of the times we are living through? How can parents help them form — and understand — the narrative, even when they themselves feel worried, overwhelmed and unsure?

I went back to several of the pediatricians I’ve consulted about different aspects of the coronavirus and asked: How are you telling your children the story of the pandemic?

Dr. Gail Shust, an associate professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at New York University School of Medicine, has said to her children, aged 13 and 15: “If you ever have kids, someday you’re going to tell them about this time when we all stayed inside for months, and everybody wore masks.”

Dr. Adam Ratner, the director of pediatric infectious diseases at New York University School of Medicine and Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at N.Y.U. Langone Health, said, “I don’t even know how to tell myself the story about what’s going on right now.” He wrote in an email, “For me, some days feel like a great story of grit and hope, and some feel like we’re just standing on (or stepping off) a precipice.”

His daughter is in college, he said, “and I can talk to her like I can talk to a grown-up, she loves public health stuff.” Because she is interested in medicine, he said, “I wanted to model that good doctor behavior where you sometimes have to do things that are frightening or where you don’t have 100 percent of the information.”

The narratives vary depending on children’s ages, but all children need narratives. Dr. Grace Black, a pediatrician on the faculty of the University of Rochester, has three young children, the oldest of whom was in kindergarten when lockdown interrupted their lives. For her 3-and-a-half-year-old, she said, who wanted to go out and go places, “I said, we can’t go because there’s a virus that’s making people sick so we can’t go, we don’t want to get sick.”

Her son said OK, she said, and three days later, he said, “We didn’t get sick so can we go now?”

“We want to tell a story to our kids about what this time is going to mean, but are we going to be able to?” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. “Sometimes when you’re in a state of high stress, it’s hard to take a step back and do that bigger-picture reflection.”

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In an email, she wrote, “I think meaning-making usually involves achieving a sense of central coherence that a lot of U.S. parents don’t have right now.” An expert on children and digital media, Dr. Radesky said one reason it can be hard to tell that larger story may be because parents are “dealing with little bits of information coming at us, tailored feeds on the internet, doomscrolling, trying to make sense of it, feeding on all the information about the Covid numbers.”

And it’s harder to make meaning, she wrote, “when your brain is feeling scattered, traumatized and isolated: We usually need other people and our collective cultures to help make meaning out of experiences.”

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Reading other narratives can help children think about their stories, and writing things down is powerful. Dr. Amy Shriver, a general pediatrician in Des Moines, Iowa, has daughters who are 9 and 12. Her older daughter is reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” she said, and talked about feeling trapped.

Since I was asking these questions around the July 4 holiday, “Hamilton,” which premiered in film form over that weekend, was a reference point for a number of children. Dr. Radesky said it had helped her family through what would otherwise have been a difficult holiday, and Dr. Shriver’s 12-year-old, a fan, said to her, “Mom, this is what it’s like when the world turns upside down.”

Dr. Shriver said in an email, “I’m encouraging my kids to journal every night about life during the pandemic. I’m telling them how incredible it is that *everyone* in the world is experiencing the same stress and worries at the same time. Even though we are physically distanced, we all feel closer to one another due to this shared experience.”

Dr. Ken Haller, a professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University, said in an email that he has been asking parents versions of this question since 2014, when many of his patients were affected by the Ferguson uprising after Michael Brown was killed. “I was especially asking parents of babies and very young children what they would tell their children in 10 or 15 years about what life was like during the protests.”

At that time, he said, most parents would say they hadn’t had time to think about it, but when he asks the question now, parents are interested in keeping track — writing in a diary, saving social media posts, maybe even making videos talking to their children when they’re older.

“As pediatricians and people who care for children, it’s been a fascinating time in our history,” said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a professor of pediatrics and the director of the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research at Northwestern and Lurie Children’s Hospital. “How can one virus stop the world?” She wanted her children to tell me their own stories of this time. There were disappointments: Her 18-year-old son missed out on his senior year festivities and his in-person graduation, her 14-year-old daughter on her eighth-grade graduation after spending 11 years in the same school.

  • Frequently Asked Questions

    Updated July 7, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


But her son, Rohan Jain, talked about how important it’s been “to write every day about what’s going on in the world and what my thoughts are.” It was important to him to march for racial justice, he said.

His sister, Riya Jain, wrote a book explaining Covid to kids. “I had so many questions, so kids younger than me would have the same questions if not more.” And she has been making a video journal. “I hope in 20 years I can show that to my kids to help them understand what the year 2020 was like,” she said. Citing the protests and the chance to make changes in the world, she added: “It’s not all sitting at home sad.”

Dr. Haller has been asking kids what it’s been like not to be in school, and one 6-year-old answered, “I hate it.”

His mother responded, “He used to always say he hated school.’”

Dr. Haller wrote, “He looked at her and said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ She returned his look, with a raised eyebrow. He sighed and looked at the floor again. ‘I miss my friends. I wanna go back.’”

So the pediatrician asked the child, “Twenty years from now, you may have a kid of your own. What are you going to tell him about what it was like to be around in 2020?”

The boy answered, “I’ll tell him it was real bad.” He thought briefly and then added, “And I’ll tell him that I really liked school.”

Dr. Haller wrote, “His mom smiled. I looked at her and nodded. ‘I’ll tell him we were just tired all the time,’ she said, looking at her son, ‘but somehow we all got through it.’”

Dr. Perri Klass is the author of the forthcoming book “A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future,” on how our world has been transformed by the radical decline of infant and child mortality.

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