scorecardMy kids pretend to give each other vaccines and play other pandemic-themed games. Should I be concerned?
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My kids pretend to give each other vaccines and play other pandemic-themed games. Should I be concerned?

Anna Medaris Miller   

My kids pretend to give each other vaccines and play other pandemic-themed games. Should I be concerned?
LifeScience4 min read
Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • It's normal and healthy for kids to express their emotions and process experiences through play.
  • Play with them to correct misconceptions, encourage their interests, and work through their fears.
  • Pregnant or parenting with questions? Submit your question to Anna anonymously here for nonjudgmental answers.

Dear Anna,

My kids, 4 and 6, are obsessed with COVID-related games. First, they did things like pretend to be sick and take each other's temperature. Now they're dishing out fake vaccines to stuffed animals.

It seems harmless, but I wonder how long this will last. I'm eager for them to go back to playing "zoo" and "school," and worry that they'll offend someone in public by demanding they keep "social distance" or put on masks, even when those mandates are fully lifted.

Are other parents experiencing this?

- Elyse, Tacoma

Dear Elyse,

To answer your last question first: Yes. I polled my parent friends on Facebook, and heard about "mask" being one of a 1-year-old's first words, a toddler who sleeps with a thermometer instead of a stuffed animal, and girls your kids' age who make masks for their "My Little Ponies."

The Atlantic's Kate Cray has written about kids playing "coronavirus tag" and other pandemic-themed games, most of them safe.

Play is a healthy, normal way for kids to process their emotions and what's going on in the world, Roseann Cappana-Hodge, an educational psychologist in Connecticut, told me. "Anything they witness, good or bad, will often show up in their play," she said.

That means, as the world around them changes and they see zoo animals instead of drive-through vaccine lots, their play should morph too. There are also ways you can facilitate that shift, but be careful not to move past what their actions are trying to tell you.

"We always want to pay attention to kids' behaviors because it's our window to what they're actually thinking and feeling," Cappana-Hodge said. "Younger kids don't always have the words."

Help guide the narrative in a factual way

While you may want to plug your ears the next time your kids are "playing COVID," getting involved is actually the best way to teach them how the pandemic is affecting our world and alleviate any fears their actions may be revealing.

"Parents often think they can talk to kids, but that's not their language - it's play," Cappana-Hodge said.

If they're demanding their stuffed animals wear masks, for example, you could suggest having a picnic with the toys outside, and explaining why masks are safe to come off in that situation.

"Even though COVID is a really scary thing, once you actively have them doing activities showing them what's going on, it takes the fear out of it," pediatrician Dr. Mary Mason told me.

So does fact-checking in an age-appropriate way. If they're pretending to drop dead after "catching COVID," for example, use the opportunity to talk about how the disease can be dangerous, but most people stay healthy - especially if they've gotten a shot. "It's really important parents make sure kids have the facts correct," Mason said.

It can be a launching point to encourage new interests

Mason says there's a silver lining here. The pandemic has piqued kids' interest in science and medicine, just as it's inspired a crop of young adults to pursue medical school.

"If kids are role playing around a scientific topic, even if it's the pandemic, that's a great opportunity to start introducing other things," Mason said. Maybe that means doing simple science experiments instead of just doling out fake shots, or playing veterinarian rather than only playing doctor.

Her organization "Little Medical School" makes toys and offers programs and camps that foster interest in STEM careers.

It can signal distress if it's destructive or they seem fixated on one story line

Cappana-Hodge said there are some forms of play to look out for like "repetitive themes that reflect unresolved issues." For instance, if you've recovered from a mild case of COVID but your child pretends to be mommy on her deathbed, they likely still have anxiety over the situation.

Try to play out the narrative with them, perhaps by using a "mama bear" stuffed animal and explaining she used to be sick, but now feels much better. What you shouldn't do is say "Don't worry about it!" Cappana-Hodge said.

Another red flag is destructive behavior. This may signal that a child is struggling to express their emotions. Helping them use dolls to play out what they're feeling may help here too, Cappana-Hodge said.

Don't hesitate to enlist the help of your pediatrician or a therapist.

And finally, take stock of your own mental health. Parents, and especially moms, of young kids are understandably burnt out. Support systems, self-care rituals, and therapy (if necessary and possible) are all critical.

Your children will pick up on how you are or aren't managing stress, Cappana-Hodge said, "and regulate their emotions the same way."

Senior health reporter Anna Medaris Miller is here to answer all of your questions about pregnancy and parenting- especially the ones you don't want to bring to your doctor or even friends. As a journalist covering women's health for more than a decade, she'll mine the research, consult a range of experts, and give you the key takeaways. Submit your question anonymously to Anna here.