“The store is out of cereal,” my three-year-old said yesterday while we were “playing store”. Normally when we played this game, he would ask me what I wanted, and then pretend to drive to the store to get it for me. But the game yesterday went differently. When he told me we were out of cereal, I said, “Can I have some oranges please?” He nodded and after taking his pretend trip, came back and said, “Sorry, there is no more oranges.” I was amazed when I saw that through his play he was trying to understand my recent shopping trip. He had overheard me talking to my husband about how the store did not have certain things I was looking for because of everyone preparing for the coronavirus. Though I had talked with my children last week to answer their questions about the virus, clearly he was still trying to understand what was happening in the world around him.
As adults, we are trying to wrap our minds around quarantines, empty store shelves, working from home, childcare, and more. We may feel anxious or fearful about what the future may hold as the coronavirus shapes present day society. Consider for a moment how you have you helped your children makes sense of what is happening in the world.
Consider what they see and hear. Parents talking openly or quietly about certain foods or items not being available in stores, people wearing masking in public or on t.v., cancelled playdates and travel plans, or talks with friends about who they know that may be sick. As parents and caregivers, we have the responsibility to talk with our children and help them understand (appropriate to their age) what is happening in the world. Do not be afraid to discuss the coronavirus with your children. According to the Child Mind Institute, “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.” (https://childmind.org/article/talking-to-kids-about-the-coronavirus/)
Here are 10 tips for talking with your children about COVID-19:
1. Calm yourself down. Before you talk with your children, remember that in an ever-changing world, they depend on you for safety and consistency. If you are worried, they will pick up on this. Do not unload your fears on your children. Share your fears with other adults away from young listening ears. When you are ready and calm, talk with your children.
2. Limit screen time
Children may have a hard time understanding that something that happened once may replay on the news. They may interpret that repeated story as several separate events, increasing their anxiety and worry.
3. Open the door of communication
Find a quiet time to give your children the opportunity to share with you what they already know about coronavirus, how they feel about it, and to ask any questions they may have for you about the virus. Just like you need more information as it becomes available, so might your children. Be aware they may need more than one discussion and may have more questions later.
4. Answer questions age appropriately
Children will tell you what they need to know. You do not need to tell them more than what they ask. Or if you see young children showing their concerns through their play, you can use that as an idea of what they may need to know. Provide answers based on their age level. You do not need to prompt questions.
5. Be honest
Sometimes we may feel that we should protect our children by hiding the truth. But age appropriate truth will be a better protective factor against anxiety and fear. Children need to trust that parents will tell them the facts. That helps them to feel safe and secure.
6. Empower your children
Adults and children feel safer and more secure when we have a sense of what we can control in troubling times. You can teach your children that they can continue to have fun and do activities they love while maintaining healthy strategies. You can remind them that you and your family are taking certain steps to make sure you are healthy, and helping others stay healthy. As the Child Mind Institute wrote: “‘Kids feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe.’ We know that the coronavirus is transmitted mostly by coughing and touching surfaces. The CDC recommends thoroughly washing your hands as the primary means of staying healthy. So remind kids that they are taking care of themselves by washing their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (or the length of two “Happy Birthday” songs) when they come in from outside, before they eat, and 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.”
7. Be careful in your language
Be careful not to use language that may stigmatize people getting the virus based on gender, race, ethnicity, or nationality. Anyone can get infected with the virus.
8. Teach them about different illnesses
Let them know that even if they do get sick, they may not have COVID-19. Remind them there are a lot of germs that can cause different illnesses, but no matter what illness they may get, their parents or caregiver and doctors will help them to get healthy.
9. Be transparent (age appropriately)
If you have to cancel or change plans, that can be very hard for children, especially children who thrive on structure and routine. Be transparent about why the plans had to change, and remind them you are trying to follow suggestions from doctors so everyone can stay healthy.
10. Create general structure and routine at home with plenty of play
With school closures, routine and structure will play a large part in children’s emotional health and well-being. You do not need to worry about doing seven hours of school at home, but try to find ways to stimulate learning and growth where possible. Help them have regular meals and sleep routines. Play will also be very important. Let your children have unstructured play time. Play is the way children work to make sense of their world. With everything going on right now, playtime can help them resolve some their anxieties and interpretations of what is happening around them. Regular play with your children will help strengthen the bond between you and your children, helping them feel more safe and secure as well.
For more resources on how to talk to children and teenagers about COVID-19, here are some great resources. PBS even has a great resource with links to videos and games relevant to staying healthy or what to do when feeling sick.
The Child Mind Institute (Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus): https://childmind.org/article/talking-to-kids-about-the-coronavirus/
The CDC (Talking to Children About Coronavirus):
PBS Parents (How to Talk to Children About Coronavirus/ with links to videos and games): https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-coronavirus
Harvard Health Blog (How to talk to Teens About the New Coronavirus): https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-talk-to-teens-about-the-new-coronavirus-2020031419192