As I get ready for work, my children, aged 3, 8 and 14, run to me and give me hugs so tight that I catch my breath. It also makes me realize that I have now developed a soft tummy that will need hours in the gym to flatten out. Flatten the curve, so to speak.
These are not normal times. While some of us have had the opportunity of spending time at home, social distancing in efforts to flatten the curve, we have also had some plentiful precious moments with kids who are out of school. However, as we return to work, we are faced with thoughts ranging from enthusiasm in lending a helping hand as well as doubts and fear when thoughts of our own safety come to mind. What then goes through the minds of our young ones?
The extra tight hugs were an indication not only of the love my kids had for me or the sadness to see me leave for a night shift that would stretch to a week of night shifts; but the fear that there is stuff out there that may make me sick. That may take me away from them. Fear that people are dying, and we may be impacted as well. This fear also stemmed from them, having seen me self isolate for eight days after experiencing symptoms of fever, shortness of breath, and sore throat recently.
As a double physician home, most of our conversations have ranged over the current hot topic: COVID-19. So much so that my three year old, when told to wash her hands, told me that she did not have coronavirus on her hands at all. While I was proud of her grasp of the importance of handwashing, what saddened me was the realization that we had been immersed in the COVID bubble at home. Our conversations during that day ranged between what was going on in the state and the country; the implications of health care and PPE status; the mortality ratio as well as the at-risk population for coronavirus; how we were going to manage our schedules when both of us had to work or how we really needed to get our wills in order. As soon as possible.
While it is important to keep children aware of the risks of coronavirus and how to prevent getting infected, it is important to acknowledge that we do not make it the topic of conversation of the day for them.
1. Acknowledge and educate. Older children are more aware and involved in listening to or reading the news on the Internet. This is a good time to educate them on good social media etiquette. Use the crisis to encourage their minds; learning about the virus and how it acts in addition to treatment measures are a fascinating educational opportunity. It will also allow them to be more present in the current discussions. Younger children may not ask concrete questions. However, there are sites and lessons for them as well.
2. Ask questions about their day, their friends, and their concerns. What are they thinking of? What do they wish they could do if given a chance? What are they most scared of? How can they help in this situation? What do they know about the virus and diseases in general?
3. Respond with empathy when they express their frustrations. Sometimes, all they need is a listening ear. Instead of offering advice or solutions, listen, and be there for them. With schools closed and lack of company of friends, they may simply be bored and scared at the same time.
4. Validate their fears and reassure them. My 14 year old, who is more aware of the current crisis, especially in New York, where we have family, voices her fears in a direct way: what if we die? Be prepared to address their fears; simple reassurances of ‘this won’t happen to us, don’t worry’ will not alleviate concerns. It is important to put things into context and address the issue while reassuring them. Use reflective statements: “What I am hearing you say is that you are scared I will fall sick if I go to work.”
5. Spend quality time and live in the moment. At the end of the day, spend quality time with them. Keep the phone away and limit dire news and conversations for later. Play games, cook together, eat healthy meals together. Teach them about the values of simple living, sharing with each other, and doing something for the community and elderly. Connect with family members who are far away and cannot be with you. Send those virtual hugs to grandparents and zoom with friends!
As I get off my night shift, I thank God for giving me the opportunity and ability to be on the front line to help those in need. I thank him for the gift of another day as I head home into the arms of my loved ones.
Faiza A. Khan is an anesthesiologist.
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