Posted by Allison Grant, April 09, 2020 (last updated on July 21, 2020)
As a parent, you live for the days that your kids come home from school with questions you totally were not prepared to answer. Right? No? As more than half of school-aged children in the U.S. are now learning from home (or waiting for their school districts to figure out a distance learning plan), daycares are closing, and many parents are working remotely–or not working at all, talking to your kids about what’s going on can be daunting. No matter what age your child is, they’ve probably heard about the coronavirus by now, or, for younger ones, they’ve at least noticed some changes in their day-to-day lives.
Now, it’s up to you to teach your kid the facts about coronavirus in a way that leaves them feeling secure and in control. How do you help kids cope with these confusing changes when you barely know how to deal with them yourself? Though weeks may have passed since you saw an adult (besides your partner, if you have one), you’re not alone in this. This guide will help you navigate the coronavirus conversation with your kids. Read on for advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and recommendations from other parents around the country.
The COVID balancing act
When you talk to your kids about current events, the trick is finding a sweet spot of how much information you share. You want to give them enough to keep their minds from running wild with worst-case scenarios, but not so much that they start to obsess over everything that could potentially go wrong.
Your first step is figuring out how much they know. All you have to do is ask them and see what they say. Depending on what your kids know, you may end up having very different conversations. If you find yourself dealing with over-the-top rumors, the World Health Organization (WHO) has a COVID-19 “myth-busters” page that can help you debunk the myths and focus on facts.
While talking with your kids about the coronavirus, your main goal is to give them the information they need to make healthy choices at an age-appropriate level (like washing their hands and finally breaking that nose-picking habit) and feel safe during this time of intense change. It’s perfectly normal to not have everything figured out right now, but don’t wait until you do to talk to your kids about the coronavirus. Prevention is one of the best ways to make sure you and your family stay healthy. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few suggestions:
- This comic posted by National Public Radio (NPR) is a great example of the main points that you should cover with your kids. You can even print out a foldable version for your child to read on their own.
- If you need more help explaining how the virus is transmitted, the “How Do People Catch a Cold?” episode of Ask the StoryBots on Netflix (geared towards children ages 3 to 8) may help.
- Time to Come In, Bear is a children’s story about social distancing, illustrated and read aloud on YouTube. The story explains why social distancing is necessary and emphasizes how it can be fun for little ones.
Anticipating COVID questions before they’re asked
On a normal day, it’s impossible to predict what kinds of questions your child will ask next. Cue flashbacks to sneakily Googling why spiders don’t get caught in their own webs. However, when it comes to the coronavirus, there are a few big questions that you can pretty much count on, like, “will I get sick?” and “what happens if you get sick?” The CDC has a cheat-sheet of answers to commonly asked COVID-19 questions, so you aren’t caught off-guard–though you may need to simplify the answers a little bit for your young children.
Opening up a dialogue about your kids’ questions will give them a safe space to share their fears and worries. Instead of just telling them that everything is going to be fine, this is your chance to explain to them just why that’s true (we’re washing our hands, practicing social distancing, and staying home, so the virus doesn’t spread).
Make sure that your talking points are age-appropriate, and that you explain things in terms they can understand. Tell your children about all the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who are taking care of everyone, and all the scientists working on a vaccine for the virus. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” If you’re not sure where to draw the line between what your child needs to know and what they can remain in the dark about, check out this collection of kid-appropriate news sites, grouped by age range.
Leading by example
At all times, but especially during times like these, children of all ages look to their parents to understand how to act. It’s okay to let your children know that you’re a little stressed. They’ll probably be able to tell, anyway, so letting them know how you feel will help establish even more trust and security. Instead of worrying that you’ll upset them by being worried or anxious, you’ll be showing them that it’s okay to feel however they feel. Common signs that your child may be feeling anxious or scared include:
- Returning to behaviors or habits that they’ve outgrown (like thumb-sucking or bedwetting)
- Unhealthy sleeping or eating habits
- Difficulty paying attention or concentrating
- Increased crying or irritability
- Avoiding activities that they used to find fun
One way to help your child work through feelings of anxiety is to show them that they have some control over their experience. By washing their hands, not touching their face, eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, and staying home from school and other social activities, they’re helping themselves and the people around them to stay healthy. Other ways to care for your child’s mental health during the coronavirus outbreak include:
- Helping them come up with a self-care plan that makes them feel comforted
- Limiting household exposure to news and media
- Creating a daily routine to add some structure back into their lives (especially for children whose schools have closed)
- Letting your kids see you follow your own advice when it comes to the coronavirus, like washing your hands and getting enough sleep
- Helping your kids use technology to keep in touch with friends and family members
There’s not a parent out there that has all the right answers for talking to children about coronavirus. All you can do is try (and try, and try...) and be patient with your children and with yourself. It’s an ongoing conversation, and you don’t have to know everything on the first day. For more insight into the current coronavirus situation (and getting healthcare during the pandemic), visit the Solv COVID-19 resource page.