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How Older Parents Can Discuss COVID-19 Concerns With Their Kids

Father and Son Talking on the Beach
Image by Rob And Julia Campbell / Stocksy
April 5, 2020

Even when your children grow into adults and have children of their own, they're still your kids. Right now, older adults are considered at higher risk of illness for contracting the coronavirus. Despite those personal risks, most older parents can't help but worry about how their children and grandchildren are faring amid the pandemic.

Parents, as elderly as they may be, retain maternal and paternal concerns for their kids. As a parent to grown children myself, I want to know that they're doing OK right now and that their younger kids are taking care as well. But how do you prepare for emotional discussions like that?

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How to discuss emotional concerns with your adult kids

First and foremost, as an older parent, you should come prepared with facts and logic. If your family has a history of mental health disorders, it's important to understand how this might affect your kids, especially now, as the global pandemic and subsequent isolation can heighten anxiety and depression.

Second, you have to be open to hearing your adult kids' feelings. Here are some steps to help you do both.

How to listen and talk to your adult kids.

Now that you're prepared to have emotional conversations, it's time for older parents to start the conversation. If you and your kids already have an established trust, it will be far easier to carry out empathetic communications. 

However, if older parents and their now older kids have a long history of miscommunication and avoidance, this will be more challenging and might lead to arguments. Now is an opportunity to remedy those communication habits and relationships.

In either case, here are recommendations for talking and listening:

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1. Understand what it means to listen.

Listening requires respecting the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of another without judgment, criticism, or interruption. 

After patiently hearing your loved one share their experiences, it's time to join the conversation. Do this gradually, one thought at a time, and wait for their responses before continuing.

Before jumping into facts (and especially conclusions), empathize with what your child said. Use short sentences like, "I hear your worries. Can you please tell me more?"

In this respectful tone, you are helping your adult child extend their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This attitude on your part comes across as understanding, which can be relieving to the speaker.

2. Know how to respond.

When you feel your adult child has said all they can, it's your turn to respond mindfully. First, remember to praise them for sharing. Then, acknowledge that it's hard to put feelings into words, and you appreciate them attempting to do so.

If they were misinformed about your risk or your current health, you can correct them. You want your adult child to be aware of your circumstances (physical or emotional) and what you are proactively doing to take care of yourself. 

It's common for older people to feel patronized or even marginalized by their younger kids. This is why you've come prepared with facts—now you can gently correct your adult kids for underestimating you.

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3. Openly discuss any actual physical illnesses.

If indeed you are not healthy or robust and have had pre-existing medical problems prior to the pandemic, your adult children may want to hear specifics that you prefer to avoid.

Share only the basics, such as your symptoms and your medical care. It may become important later on for your adult kids to assist you or find someone who can. Share any resources you may have garnered that will lessen their burden.

If you haven't yet developed these resources, discuss possibilities with them. This conversation can be more difficult, so take your time and ask your kids to listen patiently—the way you did for them.

Now you're the one who needs empathy and heartfelt understanding. If you aren't getting that, ask for it. 

4. Openly discuss your hardships.

Your kids are grown, but they're still young. They likely have not experienced the struggles you've encountered, such as immigration, illness, or the death of friends or a spouse.

Let them know how you are experiencing the pandemic, which is most likely not the first crisis in your life.

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Clarify goals.

When talking about the pandemic, past and present feelings will probably arise. But try not to discuss everything at once, as that can stir feelings of helplessness or fears about an uncertain future.

Your goals are to feel connection, love, and understanding. They're not to cause further trauma by jumping into past struggles. You want to underwhelm, not overwhelm.

The crux of the matter is to stay focused, at least at first, on the present pandemic and how you can support each other through it, even from afar.

The best goal is to further your loving connection and relationship with your adult kids. They need to be reminded you love them.

The bottom line.

Most of all, keep in tune with your adult child's emotions. If they like concrete explanations and suggestions, after you've listened carefully, go with that. If they want more in-depth discussions, give them that.

As adult as they may appear, they are probably fairly new parents and new to world crises. Listen and learn from each other. Now is an opportunity to strengthen your bond.

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy. She received specialized training in child and adolescent treatment at New York University and adult psychoanalysis at The Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research.

Hollman is the author of the books Are You Living With A Narcissist? and Unlocking Parental Intelligence. She has also written several parenting guides as well as articles on mental illness for Long Island, NY health professionals and schools, discussing issues relevant to educators and mental health counselors, including ADHD, the gifted child, and depression or anxiety in children.