The guidelines for speaking with children about difficult topics vary by age. This is true with the coronavirus as well. With preschoolers you might narrowly focus on building healthy habits and giving reassurances about their safety. In elementary school, many children are ready for basic information and there may be a need to correct misinformation. By middle school and high school, they may be ready for conversations about how viruses move, the impact on differing communities and the importance and impact of social policy.
Parents set the emotional landscape – As a parent, how you present information about a topic goes a long way towards how your children take that information in. If you present something as “the worst thing ever,” children will take it that way rather than presenting it as “something we need to be aware of.” The aim is to calm yourself down before you speak with your children.
Get the facts – It can be helpful to start a conversation with your child by sharing a few basic facts. In this case, the new coronavirus causes a respiratory illness called COVID – 19. The major symptoms include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Most people who catch it have mild symptoms. More severe symptoms are more common for older people and people with existing health concerns.
Find out what they know – It can also be helpful to ask what they have heard or about any concerns they have. What they already know makes a good starting place. This also allows you to clear up any misunderstandings and better address their specific concerns.
Let their questions be your guide – Once you’ve started the conversation, it may be enough to let their questions be your guide to how much more information is needed. Some children may not have any questions, others may have specific questions or bigger worries. Aim to answer all of their questions honestly and in age appropriate language. Also, answer just the question asked to avoid overwhelming with information.
Provide honest reassurance – It can be helpful to share how rare this illness still is and how mild the symptoms are for most people. It may be a reassuring to share what their family, school, community and country are doing to prepare and to keep people safe.
Keep it an open topic – It can be helpful for children to know that they can always ask questions about this or any other topic. You might also check in with them every few days to see if they have heard anything new or have worries or questions.
Focus on building healthy habits – At all ages, there are a few basic things children can do to keep themselves and those around them healthy. Focusing children on what they can do can be empowering to them and help to lessen their stress.
- Wash your hands – Teach and encourage children to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. You might challenge them to find songs that last 20 seconds while they scrub or set a fun timer like the Children’s Countdown app. You might get them paint soap, foamy soap or soap with a toy inside. Encourage handwashing at all the regular times like after the bathroom and before eating or drinking. It may be helpful now to add handwashing as part of the routine when they arrive or leave school and other crowded places.
- Sneeze and cough in your elbow – Teach and encourage children to sneeze and cough into their elbow. If they use a tissue, encourage them to wash their hands.
- Avoid touching your face – Teach and encourage children to avoid touching their face. Okay, this one is tough. You might play the hands-off game (kind of like the Quiet Game except the loser touches their face first rather than makes noise) to see who can keep from touching their face the longest. Along the same lines, teach and encourage children to avoid sharing food, drinks and personal products like chapstick and makeup.
Empathy for things they miss and cancelled activities – In the next few weeks, schools may close and sporting events may be cancelled. If your child is angry or disappointed, it is often good to start your response with empathy. “I am so sorry that got cancelled, you really like going there” is a nice way to start.
Teach about impact on others – This might be a good time to highlight their impact on others. By late elementary school you might discuss how cancelling events is to keep the virus contained and how that benefits other people in the community.
Avoid news media – For children under eight years old, it may be best to avoid the news media all together. This includes internet, television and radio news. The headlines are often alarming and news stories tend to lead with dramatic details. All of this may add to a child’s sense of stress. For older children, it can be helpful to at least know what they are seeing and hearing and use that information as a starting point for further conversations.
If you are sick, stay home – This is a good reminder for anytime: When you are sick, please stay home. The coronavirus, much like other colds and the flu spread through interactions with other people.