How to Talk to Kids about Coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic is a powerful parenting lesson in resilience-building.
Before widespread school closures and “social distancing,” my husband and I sat down with our kindergartner to talk about COVID-19. Our son had already noticed people in masks and we knew it wouldn’t be long before it became a topic at school, so we aimed to be his primary source of information and reassurance. Even though my first instinct was to shield him from the fear and discomfort I was feeling about the virus, as a psychologist, I know better than to think that avoidance relieves anxiety for long.
If we aren’t present to shape our children’s understanding of this pandemic, or any other fear or uncertainty they face in life, they will be forced to create their own (usually scarier) story.
Let’s not forget that anxiety is an expected and appropriate response to a pandemic; at its best, anxiety is designed to keep us safe and will (hopefully) lead to necessary behavior change to protect those most at risk in our communities. Avoiding or minimizing the impact of COVID-19 not only sends a confusing and potentially harmful message to children, but it’s also about as productive as panicking. (To be clear, neither will help.)
It is true that this pandemic and its impact on our society is scary, messy, and inconvenient. It’s also true that it is a powerful parenting lesson in resilience-building that none of us wanted, but we all face nonetheless. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, adversity that our children will encounter in their lives. But I assure you it will be a memorable one, and that they are counting on us to show up for them and guide them safely (even if a bit uncomfortably) to the other side. As parents, we can model how to weather a storm and to come out the other side stronger, closer, and more prepared to face future challenges.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and challenging task, I believe our children will fare better with these fears and changes if we can focus on helping them to form a plan and find a sense of purpose. This is, of course, in addition to sharing accurate, developmentally-appropriate information and providing reassurance that we are here to keep them safe.
When talking with your child about coronavirus, it’s important to be prepared.
I’m not just talking about gathering accurate information from trusted sources (which you should) so that you can provide reassurance (which we must). I’m talking about facing your own anxiety first. Like I said, anxiety makes sense, is unavoidable, and can even be helpful, but only if we learn to manage it. When left unchecked, our own fight or flight response can trigger or exacerbate anxiety in our children and thwart their ability to cope. Before talking to your child, be sure to reflect on your own worried thoughts; ensure that your own narrative about the pandemic is both true and helpful so that you can be emotionally steady for your children.
Remember to listen first.
Chances are your child already knows something about the virus or its impact. Before you talk, learn about what your child knows, wonders, or fears. Children are not blank slates, and if you hope to influence their narrative, you have to start by hearing the story they’re already building.
When it’s your turn to speak, it’s generally best to keep it short and simple. Do not overshare. Focus on what is most important and relevant to your child’s experience, but most importantly, follow your child’s lead.
We actually spent very little time talking about the virus itself with our son. Our conversation focused on:
- the important jobs we had to do, including learning and practicing healthy habits and social distancing (our plan) in order to
- keep our family and others, especially those most at risk, safe (our purpose).
My husband skillfully related it to something familiar that our son has already mastered: safely crossing the street. We emphasized being smart and cautious, but not overly fearful. My husband got playful and dramatic and asked our son (as he acted it out) if we should cross every street like a scaredy cat? This made him giggle and also allowed my child to take on the expert role to tell us how we don’t have to worry and be scared about crossing the street! We just need to pay attention and be careful.
To keep your conversation appropriate to your child’s developmental stage, I recommend referencing the National Association of School Psychologist’s parent resource on talking to your child about coronavirus. For nearly all ages, I highly recommend using NPR’s coronavirus educational comic book as a resource.
It’s important that we not only model good hygiene, but also model healthy thinking habits, compassion, and social responsibility.
Invite questions and leave the discussion open. Please don’t shy away from hard questions, including talking about Xenophobia with your school-age children. Help your child “catch” and “correct” catastrophizing thoughts. Give your child a sense of purpose by emphasizing the important role we each play in keeping ourselves, our family, and those who are most vulnerable safe.
To decrease feelings of isolation and help them feel connected to a larger sense of purpose, you can emphasize how your children are part of a larger community taskforce (locally, nationally, and globally) with a mission to slow the spread of a this sickness and keep each other safe. My son suggested, “I’m basically a superhero, right mom?” And he really is!
Instead of dismissing your child’s emotions, validate their feelings and provide reassurance that you, their doctors, and government leaders are all working hard to keep them safe.
It is okay to say that most children only get a little sick or show no symptoms at all, and that most people who have gotten sick have recovered because so far that is true. But know that even if you provide the best reassurances to your child, they may still feel scared, so be prepared to offer a safe space for children to talk about their negative feelings. Sometimes hearing our children’s fears can trigger our own, and this is where our own emotional resiliency is essential.
When my son shared that he felt “a little scared,” it was tempting to insist that he “will be fine…” But instead, I related to his experience by saying, “I can understand why you are feeling a little scared and I felt that way at first too. But now that I know all of the important jobs that WE can do to stay safe together, and how hard the rest of the community is working to keep each other safe too, I feel better so I can get back to focusing on being a fun mom for you and all of the other good parts of our life together.” Remember, reassurance is more than just what you say, it’s also how you say it, showing your child that you are calm and assured.
Do your best to maintain what routines you can and some sense of normalcy, including fun.
While life may not feel normal, your children need a sense of normalcy and will lean on you to create it as best you can. Also remember, emotions and tempers may be high during this time of stress. Do your best to be graceful with your child and yourself.
We have a long road ahead of us, but I am hopeful that if we can focus on a plan to support our children in developing resiliency in the face of this crisis, it will help to give us a sense of purpose we will need to be strong in navigating the uncertain days ahead.
If you are looking for additional resources and further reading, I highly recommend:
How to Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus by the Child Mind Institute: www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhVad8ToCiU&feature=youtu.be
National Association of School Psychologists’ (NASP) resource: www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/talking-to-children-about-covid-19-(coronavirus)-a-parent-resource
Dr. Dawn Huebner, author of “Something Bad Happened: A Kid’s Guide to Coping With Events in the News.”