Helping Kids Through the Pandemic With Stories
posted by: Mile High Mamas
“Mom, when can I have a sleepover?” I felt my eight-year-old daughter’s body stiffen as she lay next to me in the dark, waiting for an answer. I enjoy our bedtime chat, but dread questions like this. Before the pandemic, we had planned her first sleepover with friends. At the point of this conversation, sleepover plans were on hold indefinitely.
My three children had generally handled social distancing well. To protect our parents, we had treated the pandemic as though we also were vulnerable late-70-somethings: remote schooling, no shared indoor spaces, etc. We did not want to cut the grandparents off from our kids, especially my mother who lives alone and had recently moved two thousand miles to Central Park to be closer to her grandchildren.
Our kids played with each other and made up increasingly creative projects. But all was not well. At least once an hour, screaming arguments erupted among some combination of the kids. (I’ll admit, my husband and I, struggling to manage childcare along with two demanding jobs, did not always keep our cool with these disputes.) My daughter complained regularly of stomach aches that the pediatrician finally attributed to anxiety.
Now, in the dim light, I saw my daughter’s hands gripping her belly. At a loss, I tried something new.
“Once upon a time,” I began, “there was a girl who lived in a house just like ours. One day she heard a cracking sound. She ran to the window and saw her street breaking apart. The ocean had rushed in and now each house was separating into its own island …”
I could feel my daughter’s body gradually relaxing beside me. Like most parents, I had discovered that stories work wonders at soothing, entertaining, and explaining the world to children. My kids ignore a lot of what I say, but stories leave them demanding: “keep telling it!”
Over the months, I came up with a stream of bedtime stories, stories in which each family lived in a separate submarine or everyone was stuck in bubbles. Brave girls and boys ventured out to save the world or sometimes just learned to adapt.
Even though relatively protected from the virus, the pandemic has been hard on children. The nonprofit Feeding America reports that 17 million American children do not regularly get enough to eat. Colorado is not immune, unfortunately. Statistics show that 1 in 8 Colorado kids lack adequate food. In addition, many young children are left alone at home by parents without childcare and desperate to earn a living. Even children like my own, with the good fortune to have parents at home and no worries about their next meal, struggle with emotions they do not yet have the ability to name or manage.
Stories help my children work through their emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s only “once upon a time”; they can see that the houses on our street haven’t really turned into islands. But imagining houses floating away appears to help my kids process a scenario in which it certainly feels like we are each marooned on our own islands.
Unfortunately, we cannot make the pandemic magically disappear. Telling stories, however, is one thing we can do to help our kids make some sense of it all.
Zoe Argento is a mother, lawyer, and writer living in Denver. Her new book is an illustrated children’s book for kids called Isolation Island: A Pandemic Story, available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08PX94MCJ. Zoe can be found on Instagram at @ZoeArgentoLives and on Twitter at @ZoeArgento.