Parenting During the Pandemic: Communicating with Children About COVID-19


Sep 20, 2021

Mother talking to her young daughter with bikes in the background, photo by Dishant_S/Getty Images

Photo by Dishant_S/Getty Images

The closure of schools and nursery settings, lockdowns, and ongoing restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic brought huge changes to children's daily routines and the lives of their families. The way parents communicated with their children about these events was vital in helping children to cope.

In autumn 2019, RAND Europe researchers were asked to evaluate Triple P—the Positive Parenting Programme—as part of the Home Learning Environment Round, a partnership between the Education Endowment Foundation, the Department for Education, and education charity SHINE to evaluate programmes that support parents and improve children's learning and development before they start school.

Triple P draws on cognitive, behavioural, and developmental theory and was created to promote effective parent-child communication and address socioemotional problems in young children. As part of this evaluation, the research team interviewed 30 parents of three- and four-year-old children about their experience attending Triple P sessions and the impact of the first March 2020 lockdown and the pandemic on family life.

Around one-third of parents interviewed indicated that their young children struggled to cope with and understand the pandemic and its associated restrictions. An example of the effect that COVID-19 had includes children being afraid to play with other children or of strangers visiting the family home. This anxiety seemed to have continued once the first lockdown was over, with children being more anxious about social interaction and presenting with behaviour problems.

One mother noted her daughter had become more shy, and reluctant to play with her friends following the lockdown. Several other parents observed a deterioration in their children's behaviour that some attributed to frustrations and confusion about the pandemic. One parent reported that their child started to misbehave at nursery and began to deliberately kill insects as a way to 'defeat the virus.'

To overcome these problems, some parents returned to the communication techniques provided as part of the Triple P programme. Examples of these techniques include encouraging good behaviour through praise and attention as well as setting ground rules and delivering clear, calm instructions to manage misbehaviour. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: Examples of Triple P Communication Techniques

Promoting good relationships
  • Spending time with children
  • Talking to children
  • Affection
Encouraging good behaviour
  • Praise
  • Attention
  • Interesting activities
Teaching new skills and behaviours
  • Setting a good example
  • Incidental teaching
  • Ask-say-do
  • Behaviour charts
Managing misbehaviour
  • Ground rules
  • Directed discussion
  • Planned ignoring
  • Clear, calm instructions
  • Logical consequences
  • Quiet time
  • Time-out

Triple P practitioners, who were also interviewed as part of the evaluation, concurred that some parents continued to use communication techniques after the sessions had ended because it helped them deal with challenging behaviour during the lockdown. Using these methods gave parents the tools to reassure their children and explain what was happening in a way that their children could understand.

“I think his new confidence had to do with Triple P,” one parent interviewee said of his child. “Just explaining to him, 'we're going to go back to school, it is ok to play with friends,' that way of giving him the extra support has helped him.”

These findings are aligned with broader studies on the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of crises on children. Research has indicated that, for most young children, what is needed to make sense of life-changing events like the COVID-19 pandemic is honest information. Conversely, if parents' anxiety about certain events remains unexplained, this can result in anxiety in children, causing them to 'act up' or argue. When parents are willing to speak openly about events, studies have shown that it can support children's adaptation to the situation.

For most young children, what is needed to make sense of life-changing events like the COVID-19 pandemic is honest information.

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However, it is not just important that parents talk about COVID-19 with their children, they should also consider how they will discuss such events with their children. Studies have suggested that young children not only need a factual explanation for the changes they experience, but also an opportunity to talk about their own feelings. This requires a communication style which can assure children that their emotions are being heard and encourages problem-solving attitudes, for example by explaining to children how the family will look after each other.

While important, being aware of the need for effective communication with children about life-changing events such as COVID-19 risks placing more pressure on parents, who may already be struggling with their own anxiety and stress due to the pandemic. This is why some parents may benefit from extra support during these challenging times, such as advice on communication techniques.

Practitioners and decisionmakers might do more to promote to parents and caregivers the support available to them, whether attending Triple P sessions or other parenting programmes. Research organisations could also aim to increase the evidence and knowledge on optimal parent and child interaction approaches after the pandemic.

Lucy Gilder and Emma Leenders are research assistants at RAND Europe. They were both involved in the research project evaluating the Level 4 Group Triple P Intervention. Read the full report here (PDF).

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