Talking to Kids about Coronavirus (COVID-19)


Talking to Kids about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Ilima Loomis
By Ilima Loomis
Mar 25, 2020
A dad and his daughter washing their hands to avoid getting COVID-19

As coronavirus spreads across the United States, families are preparing by stocking up on supplies, staying home from work and school, and practicing good hygiene. But many parents struggle with how to talk to their kids. From scary stories on the news, to worrying about their family members, to coping with major changes in their own lives, these events can be stressful on children.

Here’s what you need to know about how to talk with your kids about what’s happening.

It’s All About Consistency When Talking About Coronavirus COVID-19

“Kids feel safer when adults are consistent in our response,” says parenting expert Dr. Heather Wittenberg, a licensed psychologist and child development specialist in practice in Maui, Hawaii. That means it’s important for parents to coordinate with each other and other caregivers so everyone is on the same page.

Establish a routine and stick with it, says Wittenberg, a parent of four. Set a schedule for the day, including times for things like meals, schooling, quiet time, and activities, and consider posting it on a wall or whiteboard. “Kids are used to seeing a schedule posted in their classroom, so that feels reassuring.”

It’s fine to relax a bit from your usual rules, but the key is to establish a routine and stick with it. “You can let teenagers sleep in, but don’t go crazy,” she says. “Kids can tell the grown-ups are not in control of the situation, so to the extent you can maintain some sense of consistency and a regular schedule, that will help everybody feel safer.”

Give Your Kids Some Control During This Time

With kids home from school and their normal routines disrupted, there’s an opportunity to give them a sense of control over their new lives — within limits. Before the crisis, Wittenberg’s oldest son had been complaining that he was bored with what was being taught in one of his classes. “We sat down with him and said, you’re probably going to be out of school for the rest of the year. You’re going to be homeschooled, so what do you want to actually learn?”

Work with older kids to brainstorm what they’re interested in and have a say in their curriculum for the next weeks or months. It can take some extra work to involve kids in planning, says Wittenberg, “but if they’re involved, they’re more likely to stick with it on their own.”

Younger kids can still have a say in their learning. Even if the school is providing an online curriculum, there are likely to be gaps parents need to fill in at home, notes Wittenberg. “Ask them, ‘Do you want to learn about fish, or dancing, or Nepal?’” says Wittenberg. “Offer things you already know they’re kind of interested in, and give them a choice. That will help them feel it’s not totally out of control.”

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Keep Things Age-Appropriate

How much you tell kids about what’s happening in the outside world really depends on their age, Wittenberg says. For younger kids, “It’s more about protecting them from the news,” Wittenberg says. “They don’t need to hear all the details.” Tell kids that there’s a sickness going around. Reassure them that you’re not worried about them getting sick, but that you’re staying home to help everybody stay healthy. “Keep it short, sweet, upbeat, and reassuring.”

For older kids, it’s more about individual personalities. Some kids actually feel better when they have more information, and may want to research the outbreak or read about the details in the news. Others may get overwhelmed and scared and may not want to know any more than they have to. Parents may be juggling different strategies if they have more than one child, she notes, so it’s important to talk with siblings about being sensitive, and not oversharing information with a brother or sister who is trying to avoid the news.

Remember You’re Still in Charge

What about kids who don’t seem to take the crisis seriously, or nag you to go out for pizza or visit their friends? “That’s when it comes down to us having good boundaries and setting limits,” Wittenberg says. Some kids are intellectually capable of understanding the situation but are so disappointed or upset that they may act like it’s not a big deal or pretend they’re invulnerable.

Remember that you’re the adult, and you’re responsible. “Say, ‘I get it, you’re disappointed. I’m disappointed too.” Then reiterate that it’s everyone’s job to stay safe and do their part to keep friends and neighbors safe. For older kids, ask them to think about how they would feel if they visited a friend’s house, and got their friend sick, and then their friend’s grandma got sick. “It’s empathy, plus limit-setting,” Wittenberg says.

Manage Your Own Stress During Coronavirus COVID-19

“It’s the old airplane rule — we need to manage our stress first, and then help the kids with theirs,” says Wittenberg.

Kids will look to their parents and caregivers to find out how worried they should be, and figure out how they should react. “If we’re freaked out, they’re going to take their cues from us,” she says. “But if we say, “man, this is wild! I’m not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, but we’re going to make our best guess and go from there,’ They’re going to learn how to do that too.”

That’s true for children of all ages, but especially for babies and toddlers. “It can be easier in the sense that you don’t have to explain things to them, but they will feel what we feel, so it’s even more important to manage your own stress when you’re caring for a baby,” she says.

Take it One Day at a Time

What about when kids ask questions about future plans? Wittenberg says it’s easy to feel lost with so much uncertainty ahead. Instead of making promises or trying to guess what’s going to happen, start thinking in shorter timelines. “I can’t say to my kids, ‘Yes, we can figure out our summer plans,’” she says. “Instead, I’m going to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

Help Kids Build Coping Skills During This Time

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and want to protect kids from upsetting events, but don’t forget that going through this experience — with your help — will foster resilience in kids and help them build coping skills that they’ll use for their entire lives.

“It’s a chance to build mastery around unpredictable stressors,” Wittenberg says. “Overall, this can be a good opportunity to teach kids about what you do when overwhelming things happen, because this is not the last time an overwhelming thing will happen in any of our lives.”

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in writing about health care, HR, science, travel, and Hawaii. You can find more of her work at Ilima is a regular contributor to the RxSaver blog.

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