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Simple Ways to Debrief the Pandemic With Children

Debriefing can help kids make meaning out of chaos.

Key points

  • Two-thirds of children feel burdened by the pandemic, and many are suffering from anxiety and depression.
  • Debriefing experiences and memories associated with the pandemic can improve children's coping skills and mediate stress.
  • Debriefing is associated with parental warmth and has the potential to strengthen a child's brain.
  • Debriefing should be tailored to a child's developmental age and stage, and it's important not to push kids to talk.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, vaccines signal hope. After living in crisis mode for over a year, now is a good time to pause and debrief with family and friends about what just happened.

Research suggests that debriefing can help improve coping skills, especially for those who are secondary victims of trauma. Reflecting with children can help create meaning, support resilience and growth, and strengthen your bond.

The Need to Debrief With Children

There has been a surge of anxiety and depression in young people since the pandemic began. Two-thirds of children and adolescents (aged 11-17 years) in one study stated that they felt burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. For some children, the pandemic has resulted in an adverse childhood experience (ACE), which, experts say, releases stress hormones into the body, which can lead to over 40 negative health and mental health outcomes later in life.

Debriefing Provides Warmth, Mediates Stress, and Strengthens the Brain

While not all stressful experiences can be prevented, supporting children by offering hugs, providing stability and routines, and talking about experiences can help minimize negative effects. Conversations show kids you love and care about them. They are a form of “warm and supportive parenting,” which, studies show, can give children some protection from the negative effects of stressful experiences and can mediate the effects of stress on a child’s brain. MIT researchers reiterate that family conversations, especially back-and-forth “conversational turns” between parents and kids, are also associated with kids’ brain development.

While classic “stress debriefing” is often done with a group of strangers, debriefing with family members has the benefits of existing emotional safety and establishing an ongoing exchange of support.

Debriefing With Kids of Different Ages

While younger children may not be able to engage in complex or abstract conversations, they may respond to alternative types of debriefing, such as making artwork or expressing feelings through dramatic play.

Kids over the age of 7 may be at a developmental age to discuss abstract and emotional topics, especially if they are kept simple.

Older teenagers or young adults can also benefit immensely from debriefing about complex stressors. Research suggests that deep conversations strengthen social bonds and help people impose meaning in chaos. Researchers have found that happiness is actually correlated with deep conversations.

Some children may not be interested in talking, and it’s important not to push them. However, opening conversations, leaving kids the space to express feelings or memories, and listening empathically can help kids immensely.

Sample questions to debrief the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic:

  • Where were you when you first heard about the Coronavirus? Do you remember how you found out?
  • Who told you? When were you first aware that it got real?
  • What did you miss the most during the pandemic?
  • What’s one thing that you think helped you get through the pandemic?
  • What was a part of your new routine that you'd like to keep?
  • What were a few things you really enjoyed doing when you were at home so much this year?
  • What would you describe as your low point during the last year?
  • What were some of the things you were scared of in the last year?
  • What was an unexpected benefit that came out of the pandemic?
  • Is there anyone special you want to thank after this year?
  • Who is someone you know that had an even harder time than you because of the pandemic? Why?
  • What lesson did you learn during the last year that you don’t want to forget? Why?
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