Simon Fraser University professor of psychology Dr. Tanya Broesch, with expertise in child developmental psychology, discusses with Now-Leader reporter Tom Zytaruk the short and long-term impact this COVID-19 pandemic is having on children and parents alike.
Zytaruk: Thank you for speaking with me Tanya. Please tell me a bit about yourself.
Broesch: I’m a developmental psychologist, so I study kids and how they grow and develop, and specifically I study how early experiences shape development.
Zytaruk: I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but do you see this pandemic, which is a new experience for all of us, do you see family relationships being strengthened as a result?
Broesch: Oh that’s a great question. Families are spending a lot more time together so I think depends on the individual family. I think it’s going to make whatever relationship is there already probably a bit more potent, or a bit more exaggerated or extreme, so it’s kind of like, I don’t know, they tell you when you’re teaching or something, or you’re about to give a presentation, your nerves can serve to facilitate the process if you know your material well, and if you don’t, then you’ll crash. Same kind of thing – I think every family’s different. I think in troubled families or families that are struggling anyhow, to be honest I think this particular scenario puts an awful lot of pressure on young families. Families with small kids at home, and especially with parents being asked to work from home. I think as long as people are seeking the support that they need, through technology and whatever else they can do. Social support is so important during stressful times, we know that there is a lot of evidence for that. Social networks and support can serve as a buffer to get you through difficult times.
Zytaruk: I was two years old when the Hong Kong Flu hit in 1968, and I don’t remember a thing about it. Does anyone really remember anything when they were two, right? Is it likely to have had an impact on my development? How about today’s situation with kids say ages five and older, what kind of impact do you foresee this might have on them?
Broesch: I’m not sure about your specific scenario but yes, the things that happen to us early on, even in pregnant mothers, we know that stress and things like that can have an effect later on, so people who’ve been through extreme circumstances, we know it can impact developing babies and little kids. They’re sort of like the canary in the coal mine; they can detect the atmosphere, the stress in the atmosphere. If you have children who are higher on anxiety it might be a bit difficult for them, it depends on what the reason for that anxiety is of course. I think honestly it’s more stressful for parents. We have two small kids here as well, nine and six, and we’re struggling. My husband’s working full-time and I’m sick with pneumonia (not COVID-19 related) so it’s difficult, very difficult to keep them entertained and things like that, but watching them, I think they’re doing just fine as long as we don’t try to impose too much on them. So I think the parents are struggling, the parents are doing so much more than we ever had to do, and without any supports or anything and with all the unknowns and the fears and all that. I think it’s hard on parents and adults – it’s probably harder than it is on kids, for now. Now long term, I really don’t know. If they relax some of the distancing measures and things like that, that will be okay, kids can see other kids again. I don’t really see it happening for quite a while.
Zytaruk: I guess you’re working with the tools that you’ve kind of developed along the way and been given by your parents, for example.
Broesch: If people asked me how to talk to kids, age appropriate but honest responses, not fear-based but just facts. You can kind of empower them. I know my kids, I’ve shown them some videos to sort-of let them know just how important certain things are and why we need to do this and just how important it is. Explain to them the fact that it is fearful, right? We’re talking about death, and they’ll listen, grandparents and things like that. But I think it’s important not to instill fear instead empower them with knowledge and the facts of the situation. Another thing is, I’ve told people not to talk to them about things like this at night. In fact, don’t let them talk about it at night.
Zytaruk: Why is that?
Broesch: Nighttime seems to be an emotional time for kids, and it might be a bit tricky.
Zytaruk: Giving them bad dreams…
Broesch: It’s giving all of us bad dreams.
Zytaruk: No doubt. Say your child’s been watching TV, and says ‘Mommy, why are all the people wearing masks?’ What do you say to them, the child, say a five year old?
Broesch: Well, I would say to the parents, ‘Turn the TV off.’ We just watch that stuff at night, when the kids are already in bed. I don’t want my kids to be shocked and fearful, I want them to feel empowered and have the knowledge and to process it properly rather than emotional reactions. I wouldn’t avoid that situation, if they ask I’m going to be honest and I would tell them the facts people are dying. You talk to them about vaccines, the importance of vaccinations, we’ve had a lot of conversations around here about that.”
Zytaruk: If your child asks ‘Am I going to die?” What do you say?
Broesch: I would re-direct a question like that, because you don’t really know the answer to that question, and I would re-direct and what I would say is, ‘What we need to do is wash our hands and stay away from people, we need to create distance and explain to them the importance of doing those things. The thing is you can also focus on positives here. I mean in Canada look what we are doing, a lot of people, we are flattening the curve. And we’re doing that together, for each other. And so I think you can really focus on the positive too with kids, right? Show them what we’re all doing together. It’s also a creative time. People are doing really creative things on social media – it’s a good time for kids to be creative. It can actually be, if you’re fortunate enough to have resources and space, it can be a creative time for kids. One other thing that I kind of stress to people is routine, and that’s not just for kids. Focus on the importance of routine. It doesn’t necessarily mean structure, but getting into a routine where there’s some physical activity, there’s some academic time, there’s some creative time, and then there’s some just do whatever you want time, right?
Zytaruk: Talking about parents’ behavior now, when you consider the phenomena of helicoptering, do you foresee more of that will happen, than even now, into the foreseeable future because of this pandemic?
Broesch: Oh wow, that’s a great question – I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, I mean, how could you not? I was thinking I’m fortunate enough that my kids are six and nine and they understand not to lick the floor, the hand-railing. Especially parents of small ones, I don’t know how they couldn’t helicopter-parent. So that’s tricky, especially if you are living in a city. Maybe people will get outdoors more, into nature because that’s a place you can go with kids and not to helicopter them so much, they can run and play and things like that without worrying about this particular virus, I think.
Zytaruk: I guess it might give new meaning to the concept of stranger danger…
Broesch: Yes, definitely. It’s kind of sad. I think the kids don’t need to be fearful. I think parents are going to be fearful of the small ones just because they don’t understand it yet but the kids don’t, you can’t control their behaviour, they can’t control their behaviour, but for older kids I don’t think we want to instill a fear of strangers in them. I think we want the facts, and the facts are we don’t have to be afraid of strangers, you don’t have to be afraid of somebody dropping off a parcel, you just have to know the facts, and know what to do. I think that’s a really important message for everybody – we don’t need to fear each other, we just need to be smart, keep our hands clean and not touch our face, and create a distance for now.
Zytaruk: Heading into the new normal, whatever that will look like, do you see people psychologically fortifying themselves against strangers and one another, even more than now?
Broesch: No, I don’t. I think we need each other more than ever. I don’t. I see people being hyper-vigilant and aware of illness. I’m sure there’s going to be all kinds of problems and mental illnesses and you know, we know that’s kind-of coming.
Zytaruk: From trauma from this?
Zytaruk: They say children don’t miss a beat. I’m thinking of the effect that parents – their justifiable anxiety – will be having on their children. I suppose one thing their children might take away from this is how their parents rose to the occassion.
Broesch: Oh exactly, yeah. It’s important for parents not to try to be superheroes through all this though because, you know, the stress and everything. I think it’s okay for them to break down and let kids see that it’s a difficult time for parents and maybe they’ll pitch in a bit more. What I’m trying to say is, it’s important for them to see reality so we’re dealing with this very difficult circumstance, the pressures on parents, not just the fears, but the pressures put on parents and families right now. I think it’s good for kids to see that it’s not easy, we don’t want to fake that it’s an easy, happy time. So if they can see us process it, and if we happen to be fortunate to have the tools to do a good job, then we’ll pass that on to our kids. Right now, more than ever, they learn from their parents early on and then it sort of shifts more to peers, around the ages seven to 10, But right now, especially spending a lot of time with parents, they’re going to be learning a lot of strategies and skills. But I see a lot of parents trying to be perfect, right now, for their kids, because they’re fearful and they’re managing it in a way that they trying to do too much.
Zytaruk: I guess people isolating in their homes, and the whole aspect of cabin fever, what about your stereotypical rebellious teenager, how does a parent help that kind of child in this situation?
Broesch: I think the teenage years are really interesting, and kind of an opportunity. I think if they’re rebelling I think that’s probably not a bad thing. There’s a lot of things to rebel against, especially for teenagers growing up now. I’m not the parent of teenagers right now, I don’t really study them, I’d say a little bit. I think what I read and heard is that parents are kind of letting kids try to enjoy this time and I think teenagers can connect with their friends in many ways, it doesn’t have to be physical, right. As long as they’re abiding by the rules that are in place then I think it’s fine, let’s let them connect and sleep very late. It’s probably a good time for them to get more sleep but I think it is important, even for them and also for ourselves, to develop some sort of a routine.