By now, most school-aged children have heard about the coronavirus, whether by overhearing the news, parents talking to others, other kids at school, or from school administrators when they temporarily close the school. Even homeschooling parents must address why they aren’t visiting libraries and other public places and events they frequent during homeschool activities.

Everyone is being encouraged to avoid crowds, and if you know people who have been quarantined due to recent travel or possible exposure or who are sick but unsure of their diagnosis, you may be feeling extra anxious. Your children will definitely pick up on this and start asking questions. It can be tricky to know how much to say and how to say it. If you don’t say much but they pick up on your tension they’ll fill in the blanks their own way; if you say too much, children may feel overwhelmed or scared. Either way, they can feel unnecessarily anxious.

If your child already tends to have an anxious temperament, has special needs or is too young to understand, it can be especially important to pay attention to how you talk about this pandemic. So here are some practical tips collected from a variety of experts, including pediatricians, child psychologists, presented by a parenting expert known and respected worldwide for decades.

Which Children Need to Know?

If your child is under age 6 and has not heard about the virus yet, you don’t have to bring it up, as it may introduce unnecessary anxiety. Just teach them the skills they need to develop to new habits that can keep them healthy.

Before you Start the Conversation

Before you open your mouth, get your feelings and facts in check. If you are feeling fearful or anxious, children will pick up on it, even if you don’t verbalize it. So process your own feelings before talking to children, so you can talk with them in a calm, confident, yet honest way. They really don’t have any control over what’s happening, so the main message you want to convey, verbally and non-verbally, is that you’ve got this. You are staying on top of the situation and your goal is to protect them.

Get your facts straight, by basing your opinions and feelings on proven, unbiased facts. Limit your media exposure to the topic by sticking to one or two trusted sources. Any information that seems extreme, such as “we’re all going to die” or “there’s nothing to worry about,” are biased and inaccurate. Accurate facts will be current because pandemics are a fluid situation that is changing daily. They will include both what’s getting better and worse, as well as what to do to prevent things from worsening. Children don’t need to know all these facts, but you do, to decide what’s best for your family.

What Children Need to Know?

Start the conversation by asking what your child has already heard about the virus. Correct any misinformation or fear-based claims they may have heard.  

Acknowledge your child’s fears and provide reassurance. Don’t downplay or dismiss their feelings. Some children are naturally more optimistic or pessimistic, calm or anxious. Accept them for who they are, what they are like, and meet them where they are, reassuring them however you can.

Talk at An Age-Appropriate Level

Most children over the age of six can remember being sick, so you can compare it to that. The biggest difference is that this sickness is spreading really fast, so people are trying to slow it down by avoiding large groups, like school, sporting events, etc.

Use discretion whether you mention that the elderly are at a greater risk. Some children could become quite worried that they could lose a grandparent or other elderly loved one. If you have elderly relatives, share what they and you are doing to stay healthy. If they will be coming to live with you temporarily, frame that decision around the need to stay close and take care of each other, which is harder if they live far away or in a group living situation, which exposes them more. If they are staying in a care facility, reassure children of the health and safety precautions the facility is taking to keep your loved one safe.

Older children may know that the COVID-19 virus might have started in bats and somehow spread to humans at a market in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. This is like other diseases that started abroad, like SARS, the Avian flu, and Ebola. These facts can fuel xenophobia, which is a fear (phobia), dislike or prejudice against foreigners (xenu is Greek for stranger or foreigner). Openly discuss how making assumptions and over-generalizations can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

Focus on how we are a global community, due to travel and the internet, and every person’s life is important. This disease is affecting that community, so we all need to do our part to keep it from spreading. By avoiding travel, we reduce exposure to people who don’t know if they have the virus (not just “strangers”). The internet can help us still communicate and learn how to stay safe.

Focus on What CAN Be Done to Keep Your Family Safe

Lastly, teach or remind your children about the health and safety precautions everyone needs to use. You’ve likely already heard many times by now to:

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds after you eat, go to the bathroom, cough or blow your nose, come in from outside, or touch surfaces that others may have touched. For young children, have them sing a song like Happy Birthday or Old McDonald’s Farm twice (or once each!) to know how long to wash. Use a hand sanitizer when you can’t wash.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue and immediately throw it away, or into your elbow if you don’t have a tissue.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially the nose, eyes and mouth, where germs get into our bodies the easiest. If they see people with a mask, tell them this is a way they can remind themselves not to touch their face while getting into this new habit.

If you’d like help explaining this to children or want a visual reminder, several experts worked together to put together a comic that can help you inform your children about the coronavirus, what it is, and what they can do to protect themselves. You can read the comic here, print and fold a pdf of the comic, and following directions on how to fold it.

What to Say or Do When Children are Sent Home

If or when schools close, frame this event in a positive way, such as being able to spend more time at home with each other while the schools clean the busses and classrooms. Use phones or video-chat apps to let them stay in touch with their friends every few days.

Plan some home-based activities so children can keep current with what they are learning in school. If you don’t understand what your child is learning, there are tons of resources on the internet, which you can get to on your phone or a library computer. Try to check out resources you can take home, spraying them with a disinfectant spray when you get it and before you return it.

About the Author

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

Sources:

“How to cope with coronavirus anxiety, according to psychologists,” by Anna Medaris Miller, on Feb 26, 2020, in Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-cope-with-coronavirus-covid-19-anxiety-psychologist-2020-2

“Just For Kids: A Comic Exploring The New Coronavirus,” by Malaka Gharib, on NPR (National Public Radio), February 28, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/28/809580453/just-for-kids-a-comic-exploring-the-new-coronavirus

“The Wuhan coronavirus is causing increased reports of racism and xenophobia against Asian people at college, work, and supermarkets,” by Alexandra Ma and Kelly McLaughlin, in Insider, Feb 3, 2020. https://www.insider.com/wuhan-coronavirus-racism-asians-experience-fears-outbreak-2020-1

“What to Know About Coronavirus: How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus — Keeping your own anxiety in check is key,” by Jessica Grose, on Feb. 28, 2020, in the New York Times.  https://parenting.nytimes.com/childrens-health/coronavirus-kids-talk