As new information emerges every day about the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to keep up. And now that schools have closed, your kids are probably asking questions. So how do you talk to them about it? We spoke with Dr. Nicholas Westers—clinical psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas and associate professor at UT Southwestern—about how to explain coronavirus without inducing anxiety.
As a parent, you want to protect your kids. But is it important for them to know the details of the coronavirus right now? Yes. It’s important for them to know about the coronavirus at a developmentally appropriate level. If you don’t talk to your children, they’ll likely obtain it from other sources that may not be accurate, or if the information is correct, your child will be left to interpret that information on their own.
For instance, they might learn that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus and may die because of it, but your child may not know what “elderly” really means or that contracting it does not inevitably lead to death. They might think that you are elderly, so it’s important for them to know that “elderly” typically means 65 and older.
Similarly, they should know the reason you may not be visiting Grandma and Grandpa is so you can keep them safe, but that you plan to talk with them through FaceTime or Skype.
What’s the best way to approach kids when they ask what the coronavirus is? Does that depend on age? The best way is to make them feel that their questions are important and to be ready to answer their questions on a developmentally appropriate level.
To communicate that you are okay with talking about this, you might start by saying, “This is an important topic, so I’m glad you asked,” and then ask, “What have you heard about it?” or “What do you think it is?” and then tailor your conversation from there.
What if your child is older? Like a teen? If your child is an adolescent that has little to no anxiety or has a flippant attitude toward the current CDC guidelines, you may need to have a different kind of conversation.
Their lack of concern could put others at risk, so your approach may require appealing to their altruistic nature in order to highlight how taking precautions through hand washing and social distancing can keep their grandparents and other at-risk individuals safe.
This way they may be less prone to feel that you’re attempting to restrict their independence, and more prone to feel that they’re pro-socially contributing to the wellbeing of friends, loved ones and society.
Do you have any thoughts on what might be too much to share with very young children? Some parents want to be as honest with their child as possible by sharing as much as they know, but this isn’t always helpful. It’s great to be honest with what’s going on, but over-sharing leads your child to filter that information and come to their own conclusions—which could be far worse and anxiety-provoking.
For instance, children don’t need to know about any shortages of masks, who you know that might have been exposed to the coronavirus (unless it immediately and directly affects them), how different political parties may or may not have responded to these events according to your liking, who you think is to blame.
How can you keep them from getting too worked up or scared? First, you can take care of yourself. Children take their cues from us adults and caregivers about how to best respond in situations like these.
Second, don’t downplay what’s going on. Stating there’s nothing to worry about could feed their anxiety rather than help them, especially because they know school doesn’t get canceled without a good reason.
Third, stick to routines, address misconceptions, monitor and limit their media exposure and develop a family game plan. Talk about: How will you maintain contact with family and friends? How will the daily routine be if school is not in session?
Finally, provide practical strategies for your kid. Fearful messages are less fearful when we know exactly what we can do in response. For instance, coughing and sneezing into a tissue or elbow, washing your hands regularly, helping clean surfaces with wipes and participating in social distancing.
What are the top things kids need to know—in addition to hand washing—to help prevent the spread of the virus? Should families try to keep as much normalcy as possible? Social distancing. Explain to them that it means minimizing contact with people by staying away from big groups and maintaining a distance of 6 feet from others (when possible).
Inform them that this is a preventive measure, not a punitive measure, and that it’s not meant to be in place forever. And absolutely, families should try to keep as much normalcy as possible, as structure and routine decrease anxiety by decreasing the unexpected.
Image courtesy of iStock.