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Talking to kids about COVID-19

March 31, 2020
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Many of us are still adjusting to the “new normal” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The social distancing measures being taken can be especially hard for children. Schools have cancelled for weeks, they no longer see their friends on a daily basis, and even simple trips out of the house seem scary.

Many parents are wondering how to bring up the epidemic in a reassuring way. As a parent, you can help your kids by understanding what information to tell them and how.

Baystate Health’s Child Life Specialists have compiled the following advice with tips from the Child Mind Institute in New York:

Deal with your own anxiety first

If you are feeling anxious or panicked, that is not the best time to talk to your kids about what’s happening with the coronavirus. Take some time to calm down before trying to have a conversation or answer your child’s questions.

Don’t be afraid to discuss the coronavirus

Most children will have already heard about the virus or seen people wearing face masks, so parents shouldn’t avoid talking about it. Not talking about something can actually make kids worry more.

Look at the conversation as an opportunity to convey the facts and set the emotional tone. Your goal is to help your children feel informed and get fact-based information that is likely more reassuring than whatever they’re hearing from their friends or on the news.

Consider your child’s age

Children need you to talk to them on their level.

When speaking to older children, use common terms, like “coronavirus.” For younger children that may not be at that vocabulary level, ask questions about the “new sickness.”

Get a feel for what your children know – or don’t know. It’s best to stop misinformation in the home. Having a more accurate understanding of COVID-19, the risk, and how it’s spreading is more comforting than scary rumors. Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming.

Do your best to answer their questions honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters. If you don’t know the answer to one of their coronavirus-related questions, just tell them that. You can always turn to credible sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for those answers. This will also be a great lesson for your children about the importance of staying informed.

Take your cues from your child. Invite your child to tell you anything they may have heard about the coronavirus, and how they feel. Give them ample opportunity to ask questions. You want to be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions. Your goal is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies.

Consider your tone and be reassuring

When you speak about the coronavirus, make sure to speak calmly. You can share that most people who get COVID-19 feel like they have a cold.

Children are very egocentric, so hearing about the coronavirus on the news may be enough to make them seriously worry that they’ll catch it. Try not to get openly upset while watching news updates or live press conferences. Your kids can tell when you’re worried and can absorb those same feelings.

It’s helpful to reassure your child about how rare the coronavirus actually is (the flu is much more common) and that kids actually seem to have milder symptoms.

Listen to them and encourage them to express their emotions

Watching the news and seeing so many aspects of their normal routines change can be stressful. Let them share whatever feelings they have with you. Reassure them with facts and actionable steps.

It’s normal to be stressed out over a pandemic. Kids will have an easier time getting back to normal life later on if they have a better understanding of their current feelings.

Focus on what you’re doing as a family to stay safe

Diseases like novel coronavirus can be especially scary for children because they are an invisible threat.

An important way to reassure kids is to emphasize the safety precautions that you are taking. Kids feel empowered when they know what to do to protect themselves from harm.

We know that the coronavirus is transmitted mostly by coughing and touching surfaces. The CDC recommends thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (or the length of two “Happy Birthday” songs) as the primary means of staying healthy. Remind them that they are taking great care of themselves when they wash their hands after being outside, before they eat, after blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing, or using the bathroom.

If kids ask about face masks, explain that the experts at the CDC say they aren’t necessary for most people. If kids see people wearing face masks, explain that those people are being extra cautious.

Another thing you can do to help them feel empowered is helping them call family and friends. Kids and teenagers are oftentimes more worried about others than themselves. Your child may be worried about grandma, but a video chat or phone call can put them at ease.

Stick to a routine to encourage feelings of normalcy

Uncertainty can cause uneasy feelings, so staying rooted in routines and predictability is very helpful to children. This is particularly important if your child’s school or daycare shuts down.

Make sure you are taking care of the basics just like you would during a spring break or summer vacation. Structured days with regular mealtimes, play times, and bedtimes are an essential part of keeping kids happy and healthy.

Share the facts in context and encourage open conversation

The news doesn’t always have to be doom and gloom. Highlight the positive.

Let children know they are free to communicate about this and that you will let them know when you hear about new answers to their questions.

Younger children may feel better knowing what local hospitals, like Baystate Health, are doing to fight the virus and treat people who get sick.

Older children may be interested to learn about the science behind developing a vaccine for COVID-19. You can also use this as an opportunity to teach your kids about their bodies, like how the immune system fights off disease.

Be present if your kids are watching the news, so you can put stories into context. There can be a lot of numbers floating around – those infected, those quarantined, and those who have died. Make sure they know that dying from coronavirus is rare, and many more recover.

Stick together

Make sure to check in with your children often, especially as information gets updated. Remind them that many families in our country and around the world are experiencing the same feelings and going through the same tough time, so they are not alone in this.

In the meantime, play a board game together, watch your favorite movie, and enjoy the time you are spending together!

Sources: Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope With the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network), Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus (Child Mind Institute)