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Parenting in a Pandemic: Duke Experts on Helping Your Kids -- and Yourselves

Part of the The Briefing: The Impact of COVID-19 Series
Priscilla Wald, Emma Rasiel and Robin Gurwitch
Priscilla Wald, Emma Rasiel and Robin Gurwitch

When you finish reading this story, go take a walk. Clear your head. Log off of Twitter. Step away from pandemic news. It’ll be good for you.

That’s one tip from three Duke experts who spoke to media Tuesday about various ways panic affects our lives -- and what we can do to mitigate it.

Here are more highlights:

On taking breaks from coronavirus news

Emma Rasiel: “It’s really hard. One of the things we’re seeing here is that we are now more than ever in a 24-hour news cycle with vast amounts of social media. Everyone is talking about this and the more we talk about it, the more fearful we become. That becomes a vicious circle. I’d suggest people unplugging for part of the day. Going out, getting fresh air, watching something else.”


Robin Gurwitch: “It is critical that as adults we thinking about our own level of distress and anxiety and what we are doing about it. But the other is that you have to take a break. It means truly taking a break. Walking away. Taking a walk. Playing with your animals. Playing with your children. Reading a book.

“Taking a break is one of our recommendations not only for children but for adults.”


On parenting during the pandemic

Robin Gurwitch: “The most important thing is parents need to sit down and have conversations with their children no matter what their age. Sometimes the best way to do it is to sit them down and say, ‘There’s been so much talk about coronavirus, that’s why we’re all at home, tell me what you know.’ That allows parents and caregivers to get an idea of where their children are starting from, whether they’re 4 or 14. That allows them to hear what’s the correct information their children may have. What are the rumors and myths and misperceptions children are carrying around? They can begin to correct those.

“It’s a myth to think we shouldn’t bring it up if children aren’t bringing it up first. If children aren’t bringing it up it could mean a whole host of things. So starting that conversation is critical.”


On validating your child’s emotions

Robin Gurwitch: “It is important to check into see how children are feeling about this. There will be a range of feelings from sad and worried and anxious to angry that they can’t be with their friends or do the things they normally want to do, to true fear. I think it’s important as parents to validate our children’s emotions.”



How the pandemic disrupts supply chains and creates economic anxiety

Emma Rasiel: “There are a lot of restrictions on not just people traveling, but there are restrictions and limits on goods …; those ships may not be transporting the goods. So in economist-speak if you will, we see a demand side issue with people not buying and we see a supply-side issue with necessary inputs to production not traveling. The longer this goes on, the slower and harder it will be to ramp it back up.

“We’re seeing the financial markets get absolutely crushed. The value of the stock market is off by a little bit over 30 percent since all of this started. People watch that and they see the value of their retirement portfolios going down. They’re feeling a hit right now at what they think of as their wealth, and many people continue to sell as the result. So the market becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”



On the ‘outbreak narrative’ and why pandemics are more than just a medical/health crisis

Priscilla Wald: “When you’re in the midst of an outbreak obviously, quarantines, vaccines, drugs are your front-line go-tos. If you think of it just as a war with microbes you’re going to think of it in terms of medical science, and those are the ways you’re going to address it. If you take a longer view, if you understand this as the impact of globalization, of development practices and so on, we can then see we have a much larger canvas on which we should be thinking about the problem and therefore the solution.

“Global poverty is the biggest single vector that turns an outbreak into a pandemic. We can address global poverty if we back up and think of it in small steps. But we don’t think in those terms. We don’t think of pandemics as connected to climate change, as connected to development practices. Until we start thinking in those ways and addressing the larger humanitarian and social and economic questions on that broader frame, the more we’re going to see this kind of problem.”


On not sweating the stock market quite so much

Emma Rasiel: “The president and the administration are trying to push forward with a stimulus package, which I think is a really good thing.

“(Meanwhile) don’t watch your retirement portfolio. Don’t watch numbers you know will make you scared and fearful. Fear is stronger than greed. When markets are going down, every down mood hurts two times more. We talk about stepping away form news cycles. I would also advocate for stepping away from watching your retirement portfolios. Don’t watch the numbers.”


On our responsibilities to each other

Priscilla Wald: “We are social beings. As human beings, we need each other and we also represent dangers to each other. So if you understand that by going outside because I need to or whatever, I might endanger someone else, you’re more likely to understand why I need to take that particular measure. The more we understand the situation and not respond blindly to it, the more a positive message can get across and people can behave responsibly.”


On the future, and what changes may come

Priscilla Wald: “Every crisis is a turning point. Maybe it’s time to talk about our economy, how to re-think it, how to reallocate resources. This could be a conversation that comes out of coronavirus.”


And lastly, some good long-term news?

Robin Gurwitch: “We may have a cleaner country, I think. Everyone knows how to wash their hands now.”


Meet the faculty

Emma Rasiel is an economics professor whose areas of study include the financial markets.

Priscilla Wald is an English professor and the author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative.”

Robin Gurwitch is a psychiatry professor specializing in family and child mental health.