Experts offer suggestions for talking to children about COVID-19

Uncertainty creates stress and can lead to some big emotions for kids, and adults, too.

COVID-19 has thrown all of us into a whirlwind of uncertainty, turning our lives upside down, and left many kids wondering, “What did I do wrong?” As parents, we know that none of this is our child’s fault, or a consequence for negative behavior, but now is a particularly important time to draw kids close and have honest, intentional conversations.

Parents can remind children they are safe and can build trust during this time by explaining the Coronavirus in developmentally appropriate terms, validating big feelings that have appeared as a result of the drastic changes to our lives, and respond to any anxiety or worries with compassion and patience. The unknown is scary, but the presence of a trusted adult offering basic facts will make all the difference in the way our kids cope with this challenge in their lives.

Sara Robertson, Child Life Specialist at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen, has offered the following tips on helping children of all ages cope with the changes and uncertainty related to COVID-19.

Be Prepared

In order to help your child deal with stress, you need to manage your own stress well. Parents are coping role models; our kids learn from watching us respond to stress and uncertainty, and they take their emotional cues from our verbal tones too. We can wire our kids for resilience, not panic, by reminding ourselves to take a deep breath. Process your feelings first before opening the conversation with your child.

Gather reliable information. Your primary sources shouldn’t be social media. Go directly to the CDC or local health department website to find out the facts so you’re equipped by the experts and can be confident that what you share with your child is the most accurate and up to date.

This is a time of stress for all of us. More than anything, our kids need to hear and feel that they are safe. We do this by engaging with them, spending time playing with them, listening to them. Don’t worry too much about saying the right thing. Just be present and be honest. Keep in mind: what they will remember years from now is not what you said or any specific details of the virus. They will remember how the environment in your home felt and how they saw you react. If you are stressed, it’s ok to say so; then model what to do about it– take a deep breath, reach out to a friend, go for a walk, take a shower, write in a journal, etc. Model positive coping skills and you’ll begin to see your kids emulate them as well.

Start the conversation

Follow their lead- Ask your child what they know/ have heard about COVID-19 and if they have any questions about it. Start simple and give more information as they are ready to receive it. Some kids may hear your explanation and respond with silence. This is normal, they are processing and will likely come back later with questions or other comments. Other kids may already know what they are wondering about. If you don’t know an answer, tell them you will try to find out, but don’t make something up.

Truth builds trust; Give the facts and use accurate terms. Use the term COVID-19 or Coronavirus so they can distinguish it from other illnesses. Providing honest information is crucial. Especially younger elementary age kids need to hear that if someone gets the virus it is not their fault, they did not cause it, and it is not a punishment for wrongdoing. They should not fear going to the hospital. Be sure your child knows that if they or someone they know must be hospitalized, they will be well cared for.

Leave the conversation open for questions. Ask directly “Is there anything you are wondering about? Is there anything that is worrying you?” Tell your child they can come to you any time that they have questions or concerns.

Offer support

Validate your child’s feelings, no matter what they are. Encourage them to share what they are thinking and feeling. There is no right or wrong way to feel right now. Remind your child they are safe and they don’t need to worry. Remind them there are amazing professionals working hard to learn about this virus and to keep us safe.

Expect regression and difficult behavior. In the midst of crisis, regression or misbehavior is a sign that a child is having a hard time coping, so as adults we need to see the root of the behavior rather than the symptoms. If your child shows signs of regression, respond with patience. Tell them you understand they are having a hard time with all the changes going on, and then take some time to offer extra TLC, play a game together, sit with them while they draw, cuddle on the couch and listen to music.

Offer outlets for big emotions. Kids may experience frustration and confusion due to plans being changed, school being closed, missing out on things they were looking forward to, etc. You can help navigate their understandable disappointment by expressing compassion and offering alternatives. Art and play can provide great outlets for expressing any big emotions they are facing. Talking about or even writing down things we can control and things that we cannot control right now can be a helpful activity. Create a jar of things you look forward to doing when we’re able to leave the house again.

Move forward together

During stressful times, maintaining as many normal routines as possible helps children feel safe and regulate their emotions. Structure is important for normalcy and regulation. We’re all experiencing a lot of stress right now, but kids more than ever need to know that even in the midst of the uncertainty, someone is in charge and will take care of them.

Address the changes with your child and work together to create a new plan so they will know what to expect of each day. Make a family schedule to hang on the wall and let them think of activities they would like to add. Let them be a part of the plan. So much has been taken out of their control, so anything they can have a say over can give back that sense of control and will help with behavior issues. Establishing a daily routine (or reinforcing a previously used one) rather than a rigid schedule can be helpful. A routine provides a sense of regularity but allows for adjustment as needed. For example, try to keep mealtimes and bedtimes regular. Establish a time of day when school work will be completed and when freetime is allowed. Expect that there will be days when it doesn’t work! Factor in some “off days” to give everyone a break.

Distance learning

Not being in the classroom is a huge, new challenge that students, teachers, and parents are all attempting to tackle. Continuing to engage students in learning can help maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of these uncertain times; however, it’s a difficult balance as well, because we know that when the brain is experiencing stress, it struggles to perform on a high enough level to allow much learning to happen.

If your child is experiencing significant distress related to all of the changes they are experiencing, help them take a step back and release some of that stress before tackling academics.

Communicate with the teacher so that they are aware of the challenges your child is facing.

Allow more breaks for playing or artwork in between subjects.

Lower your expectations of what “homeschool” is supposed to look like.

Here are some examples of questions kids might ask and suggested language to use:

(Consider your child’s developmental stage and adapt these answers to their understanding)

What is COVID-19 or Coronavirus? It is a new virus sickness that is spread by tiny germs. You might know about other viruses—like colds or the flu. When the germs get into someone’s body they make copies of themselves and make people feel sick. Normally when someone gets a virus, the body’s protector—the immune system—fights against it and we help our body get better by resting, drinking water, and staying at home. But, the Corona Virus is a new virus that our bodies have never fought before, so our immune system doesn’t know how to protect us from it yet.

Most people who get the Corona Virus have a cough and fever. If they stay home and rest, they start to feel better after a few days. Some people (especially those who are older or have other health problems) may need to be in the hospital so that they can have help with breathing.

How do people get the virus? The virus is spread very quickly when people are together and touch someone or something with the germs & then touch their face, nose, or mouth.

Why can’t we go to school/ stores/ where we want? Germs like to travel from person to person. Schools and many stores have closed because the scientists and doctors have found out that if people stop getting together the germs will stop getting spread around and making more people sick. This is called Social Distancing. If lots of people stay home for a while, it will be harder for Coronavirus germs to travel to new people and the Drs and nurses can use the supplies they have to help the people who are sick to get better.

Why can’t I see Grandma/Grandpa? People who are older or who have other health problems can have a harder time fighting off Coronavirus if they get the germs, so we are staying away from Grandma/Grandpa for a little while to be sure they can be healthy. But we can still call to talk to them!

Will I/my family get sick? Germs are very small so we cannot see them. We are going to do our best to do everything we can to stay healthy and to keep others safe. We can stay home, and we can be sure to wash our hands (at least 20 seconds) and not touch our faces.

Age specific needs:

Infant-preschoolers – This age group can’t understand what a virus is but notice the effect of it — stressed adults, changes in routine, not going places or seeing people they are used to seeing. Little ones primarily need to know they are safe and that the changes are not a punishment for wrongdoing. Use toys to act out the scenarios. You can explain that there are germs that are making people very sick so we need to wash our hands really good, and we are going to stay home so the germs won’t jump around to other people. Practice washing hands and make it fun—sing their favorite song or practice counting. Sesame street online has a fun video of Elmo washing his hands!

School age kids – These children want to know details, their brains are beginning to connect information and they are more likely to experience fear based on misunderstood information. They need to hear concrete facts an action plan, and be reassured that they don’t need to worry. Asking your child questions can help you know more about what he/she is thinking and where you need to correct any misinformation.

Teens – Listen and validate- most of all teens want to feel heard and understood.

Don’t offer answers, just be available and validate their feelings (there’s no right or wrong way to feel right now, and they may feel differently than you do but that’s alright). Set simple, daily mental health expectations together and hold each other accountable (eat well, exercise, healthy sleep habits, communicate). Give teens permission to stay connected with friends, and help them limit media exposure, especially if you notice it increasing anxiety.