There’s no question that the Coronavirus COVID-19 is taking over our thoughts and conversations. The news of this global pandemic is everywhere – and it’s unavoidable. This has left many parents wondering what they should say – and not say – to their children. Here are a few things to keep in mind in deciding what to share.
1. Kids are probably already hearing about it, whether we talk to them or not.
Kids are more attentive than we often realize. They’re overhearing our conversations with other adults at the dinner table, on the phone, or out and about. Their schools are almost definitely talking about it, whether they are discussing school closures, cancelled activities, hygiene practices, or simply switching from high-fives to elbow-fives. Kids are noticing that things are different, and they’ve almost definitely heard the term Coronavirus.
2. When kids don't have the full picture, they will fill the details in themselves.
What we know about children is that they create narratives in their minds. In this case, a child may have limited details such as: there is such a thing as Coronavirus, people get sick, it started in China, school might get cancelled. Then a child might string those thoughts together to attempt to make sense of it. They may think, “Everyone at my school is sick” or, “Everyone from China is sick” or “Someone I love might die from Coronavirus.” Without the full picture, some of their narrative may be inaccurate, or worse, harmful.
Here are a few suggestions on how to have a conversation about Coronavirus.
“You may have heard of the term Coronavirus. Have you heard of that before? Do you have an idea of what it means? What have you heard about it?”
This allows you to gauge their understanding of the virus. A child may say that they’ve heard of it but aren’t sure what it means, or they may have an inaccurate understanding of it altogether. Allowing them to share helps parents know where best to direct the conversation.
“Coronavirus is a virus that is making a lot of people sick. It is very contagious which means it can pass from one person to another very easily. Most people do not get very sick, but some people are at higher risk of getting sick. It is important that we all stay healthy and take care of ourselves so that we don’t pass the virus on to someone who might be more vulnerable. A lot of people are making decisions to cancel events so that people aren’t all together in the same space, so the virus doesn’t get passed around as much. For example, in our community, they cancelled…”
This helps children understand the very basics of the virus and why we are taking preventative measures. It is a good idea to emphasize all of the decisions that people are making to help prevent the spread of the virus by saying something like, “It’s so great that people are working hard to take such good care of each other. When they make decisions to cancel events (or school, etc.), they are doing that to protect people from getting sick. It’s great that everyone can help to take care of each other!”
“I am wondering how you feel about the Coronavirus.”
This allows children to express their own feelings without adults placing feelings on to them. A child may share that he/she feels scared or anxious, but also may not be feeling that. When we say, “I feel scared. How are you feeling?” it sets the child up for an answer. But after they’ve shared, we can acknowledge their feelings. For example, if a child says, “I feel scared”, we might respond, “I completely understand. It is kind of scary and I feel a little scared, too. Feeling scared when something like this happens makes a lot of sense.”
“I am doing everything I can to protect you and our family.”
We can’t make false promises that everything will be okay, because none of us knows what lies ahead. Instead, emphasize the measures we are taking to protect them. This helps children feel safe. We might say, “I have been washing my hands every time I get up from my desk at work!” or “I wear gloves at my job to prevent touching other people” or “Your teacher is wiping all of the surfaces in your classroom to make sure they are clean.”
“Do you have any questions about the Coronavirus, or anything you want to talk about?”
Here a child may ask any number of questions, may share something they’ve heard, or may have nothing to say. No matter their response to this, we should make sure they understand that we are available for any questions at any point. We may also want to say, “If you hear anything about the Coronavirus that you are confused about, or you’re not sure if it sounds right, I hope you will come ask me about it and I’ll make sure we talk about it so that it makes sense to you.”
Depending on the child’s age and maturity, a few other conversation pieces may be important.
We should be aware of any biases or assumptions a child may have made. For example, some children are attributing the Coronavirus to China may have formed an opinion about Chinese or Asian people that needs to be addressed. If so, an appropriate response might be, “Yes, the virus did start first in China. But that doesn’t mean it is China’s fault, or Chinese people’s fault. They were just the first people who got sick from it, and we want them to all get better, too. We should never, ever think something bad about someone who is from China or another part of Asia just because the virus started there. If you hear anyone saying something like that, you can speak up and tell them that is not okay.”
If you, or someone in your family, is at higher risk of contracting Coronavirus or having a more serious response to it, your child may have additional anxiety. In this case, it is again best to emphasize the ways in which your family and community are working together to protect this family member. We don’t want to promise a child that everything is okay, but we can promise them that we’re doing everything we can to protect them.
For older children, it is more important than ever to limit their access to media and technology. We want to encourage them to take breaks, read a book, go for a walk, listen to music or get some exercise. Too much media intake – and this goes for us as well – can increase anxiety. For teens, the more they know, the more we should process with them, ask them what they’ve heard, and be available for answers.
And finally, we have to deal with our own anxiety first. It’s important that we don’t bring in our worries to the conversation, and instead let the child lead the way and be available as a support. This is easier said than done, but we should save our anxiety talk for other adults, and show up for children in a calm, attentive, approachable way.