It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the constant social chatter on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The topic has saturated our news channels and our conversations. And as schools across the nation make critical decisions to remain open or to close temporarily, the impact can be felt among a younger group of people. Anxiety to an illness is a normal human response and your children may be more vulnerable. Having an open, age-appropriate discussion with your children can help them understand and ease their concerns.
We’re outlining 8 tips for how to talk to kids about coronavirus disease 2019:
1. Don’t be afraid to talk about it
Not talking about something can actually make kids worry more. Talking to your kids about the virus can give you an opportunity to convey fact-based information that is likely more reliable and more reassuring than whatever they’re hearing from their friends or in the news.
Choose a safe space and time of day when you can give your child your full attention. If you are feeling tired, stressed, hungry, or rushed you may inadvertently communicate fear, anxiety, or irritability which could make your child feel less safe.
Expect follow up conversations and questions. For example, worries can feel bigger and more daunting at night. Let your child know that you will be available to continue the conversations, provide additional information when it becomes available, or answer questions when they arise.
2. Process your own anxiety first
It is important to model a calm response. It is normal for something like the Coronavirus to bring up a lot of emotions, even in adults. If you are able to stay calm in your conversations with your child, your response can serve as a positive template for your child’s feelings and reactions
3. Take cues from your child
Assess what your child knows and what they have concerns about. Let them lead the conversation; anticipate difficult questions, but don’t prompt these or overload them with information. Your child may be having a hard time… or they might not be worried at all. Remember that there is no such thing as a “correct” response. All emotional responses are okay.
4. Don’t dismiss your child’s fears
Validate your child’s fears and concerns and gently offer facts to counter any misconceptions (particularly on the level of risk). It is okay to be both reassuring and realistic. Provide explanations about where you got your information and why it is more reliable than the rumors they’ve been hearing or what they’ve read on the internet.
5. Talk at an age-appropriate level
It is most important to reassure them that they are safe. Very young children’s worlds are often very small—they are most concerned with their parents, siblings, and close family members. Try to limit a young child’s access to news about the Coronavirus. Given their stage in development, they have difficulty understanding concepts such as close vs. far away or likely vs. unlikely.
For kids who like comics or graphic novels, National Public Radio has created this approachable way to help kids understand the virus and the situation.
Elementary school-aged children:
Your child may be getting information from a variety of unreliable sources. It is important to be out in front of the problem so that they know they can talk to you about things they’ve heard at school or on social media. Help your child put things in context. For example, it can be helpful to compare the Coronavirus to the flu which goes around every year and doesn’t receive as much media attention.
For many older children, conversations may be about media literacy and accessing reliable information. Help your child assess the source of their information. It may also be helpful to have conversations about rational vs. irrational fears.
6. Focus on staying healthy
Treat this as a good opportunity for you to reinforce what you have always told your kids: get a good night’s sleep, move your body, eat well, don’t share beverages or utensils, and make sure you wash your hands for at least 20-seconds.
7. Stick to routine
In times of high anxiety, it is all the more important to stick to your regular routine. Routine provides a sense of safety, while major changes to routine bring a sense of unpredictability and can increase feelings of vulnerability.
If your routine or future plans must be changed, be honest with your kids about why. For example, if you must change your travel plans for spring break, give your kids the facts about why and reassure them that your family will find other ways to have fun.
8. Have a plan
Make a plan with your family on how you will respond in case the virus does spread to our community. Prepare for possible work or school closures, stock your pantry with non-perishable goods, and have necessary supplies on hand. Having a plan can reduce anxiety by answering the question: “what will happen if…?”
The CDC’s has a household preparedness guide that is a helpful resource for getting started.