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COVID-19 blog series: Talking to kids about coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 

COVID-19 blog series

Kids are known for being perceptive and that remains true as they experience the COV ID-19 crisis in their own way. In the early days of the pandemic, they may have tried to figure out why the adults around them were so worried or absorbed in the news; with the vast majority of children now out of school (not just in the U.S. – 90 percent of all students globally are experiencing school closures, according to UNESCO), it is clear this is not the world they are used to.

So how do parents and other adults talk to kids about COVID-19 – making sure they understand the precautions we are all taking, while avoiding scaring them? How do we keep our own anxiety in check to avoid projecting onto them? These are difficult times for everyone in children’s lives but, thankfully, we don’t have to go it alone. Below, we’re sharing some of our favorite resources from knowledgeable sources that can help bridge the gap.

The most important thing to remember is that you know your child best. Many of these resources focus on how to relate to varying ages, but you should also be guided about what you know about your child’s development stage, maturity and tendency towards anxiety. Some resources focus on conversation, some use visuals, some use both – there’s no one “right” way to have these unprecedented conversations. Find what works best for your family and expect that you will need more than one conversation to ensure your child’s questions are answered and they are feeling safe.

Across these resources, several key themes reoccur, and are reflected in what psychologists have shared in previous crises about how to relate to children:

  • Try to learn what a child already knows about the situation and correct or build from there. There may be a misunderstanding that needs clarification that would not be discovered without asking first, and children pick up information from little breadcrumbs of overheard conversations. For tweens and teens with technology access, they may be hearing from unreliable sources or from friends. Correct gently.
  •  Validate their feelings, then reassure. It is natural to want to swoop in an assure children that nothing bad will happen, but when they see bad things happening around them, that approach can actually make them skeptical of what the grown-up is saying. If a child is sad, scared or angry – validate that, and share that you feel those things too sometimes. Children might also share feelings they are embarrassed by or feel are inappropriate – for example, a tween who knows the situation is concerning but is very happy to be out of school! Children may also be missing big milestones in their own lives, which can feel like a massive loss in their world – from missing the start of softball season to spring plays at school to middle and high schoolers who were looking forward to dances and graduations. Validate that these are difficult things to have to let go of, before reminding a child of why it is important to make this change. Encourage honesty without betraying judgement.
  • Provide action steps. Many adults are throwing themselves into volunteer work and donations right now as a way to turn our fear and confusion into action which can help – it’s natural that children will want to do the same. This also provides an opportunity to give them back control when things feel off kilter. Underscore the importance of health and hygiene steps both for your family and the community (hand washing, sneezing into elbows, 6-foot separation when out in public, and staying home). This also involves developing comfort and coping mechanisms. The Hechinger Report shares a number of ideas: Will you child feel better having scheduled video calls with family and friends? Would they be interested in going “old school” and writing letters with a family member outside of your household? Think of ways your child can connect with their community – the “rainbow hunt” started by children stuck at home in Philadelphia has now spread to many other communities; several cities have launched letter writing campaigns to connect with homebound seniors during their isolation.

The Centers for Disease Control also notes that it is important to watch how children behave and react, and not just focus on conversations. The manifestations of stress can differ by individual child and by age, but some key signs to watch out for which merit additional intervention or care include:

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, bathroom accidents or bedwetting)
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
  • Poor school performance or avoiding school
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Conversation Starter Resources Sesame Street has recently released its Caring for Each Other materials, which feature familiar Muppet faces talking directly to kids about how their own families are handling isolation – from self-hugs to keeping a morning routine. The materials offer some fun activities to keep kids focused on hygiene and health. They also have another module focused broadly on Health Emergencies with strategies on how to talk to your child about COVID-19, managing worries and developing new routines.

PBSKids has resources for relating to young kids during this time (as well as activities to engage them), including how to talk to your child about COVID-19.

KidsHealth from Nemours provides advice with some specific items which may apply to elementary and middle school students, who have already learned bits and pieces of the current situation in school or from the news.
Writing for Psychology Today, a licensed social worker provides six strategies to help kids (and parents) manage fear and anxiety during the crisis, ranging from providing structured routines to finding opportunities for increased movement.

For visual learners and comic book fans alike, we’re happy to share Clemson University‘s free online resource, Community Heroes: A Guidebook for Being Brave in the Face of the Coronavirus (in both English and Spanish), which is an encouraging children’s story for parents as they talk with their children about the virus. The comic features advice and guidance from experts at Prisma Health based on their clinical experiences. NPR worked with social workers and public health officials to develop a printable comic book for kids to learn about the biology of the virus, the social concerns, and steps they can take. It is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

For teens and older kids, this animated visual on community spread and the impact of “social isolation” may be a vivid reminder of why we are temporarily sacrificing activities that we enjoy, like socializing with friends and sports.

While several of these resources are digital options, it is also a good idea to manage media consumption, for both parents and children. For teens and tweens, this might mean checking in more often about what they are reading and watching on their own devices – they will continue to be exposed to ongoing coverage and conversations about the epidemic and may need help processing it. For younger kids, this means putting down our own devices when we are getting wrapped up in news coverage and disconnecting, and being sure to not keep the news running constantly in the background – even for young kids who cannot understand the health issue, the worried tones, sudden noises, and sirens of current news coverage can signal anxiety to them.


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