How to talk to your children about COVID-19

dad talking to daughterHow do you talk to your kids about COVID-19 when there’s so much changing day to day.? It’s normal to feel worried, but how do you reassure your children when you aren’t sure yourself?

It’s the question on every parent’s mind, especially as parents and children become isolated in homes together all day, every day. Every family and every child is different but the bottom line is that children need to feel safe, they need to feel loved and they need to feel empowered.

Here are some tips to help communicate with your children:

  1. Pay attention to your tone of voice. Children of every age need to feel safe.hat sometimes has more to do with your tone of voice and body language than your words. Work on a calm, reassuring tone of voice and let your children know that all of the adults around them, including their parents, teachers and community leaders, are doing everything to keep them safe.
  2. Don’t lie to them. Be honest and accurate. Don’t tell them everything will be fine if you don’t believe it yourself; stick to what you can say honestly.  It’s okay to tell them that doctors and scientists are still learning about this virus.
  3. Let them know it’s okay to be scared. Maybe you are scared yourself and, depending on your children’s age and maturity, you may want to tell them that you are also a little scared. Let them know that it’s okay to be scared when the situation is scary; in fact, it’s smart to be scared because being scared makes you careful. Make sure to remind them that they can be brave and scared at the same time.
  4. Let your children talk and ask questions  so you don’t overwhelm them with too much information. Answer the questions they ask but don’t bog them down with extra data. The simplest explanation: “The coronavirus is a very tiny germ – too small to see, but it gets in people’s bodies through their eyes, nose or mouth and it makes them sick. That’s why it’s important to wash your hands a lot – washing hands kills the germs.  We try not to touch our faces so we don’t get the germs near our eyes and nose and mouth.   We stay out of large groups of people, where it’s easier to spread germs. If everyone does those things, we can stop the germs from spreading.” Older children may understand social distancing in the analogy of a firebreak – removing fuel around a wildfire to keep it from spreading outward. When we practice social distancing, we’re removing ourselves as “fuel” for the germs, keeping COVID-19 from spreading through us to our friends, coworkers and classmates.“I think what is helpful for parents in supporting their children, is to assist them to learn to be in control even in a scary situation,” said Dr. Bethany Geldmaker, project director for VMAP and Developmental Screening. “Parents can set a good example and empower their children to take precautionary measures like washing hands, coughing into a tissue or sleeve, eating healthy foods, exercise and getting enough sleep.”
  5. Be aware of your language. Avoid using terms that stigmatize or blame any race, culture or ethnicity. This is a global crisis and we fight it as a global team.
  6. Model the behavior you want to encourage. That includes attitude, words and habits. If you want your children to stay positive and upbeat, do your best to stay positive and upbeat yourself. Children learn from their parents through imitation.  If you want your children to wash their hands often, wash your own hands often. If you want your children to eat healthy food, eat healthy food yourself. They’re watching you. Also, speak up! Children with special healthcare needs and chronic conditions are at higher risk for complications related to COVID-19. School and business closing may affect the availability of therapies and support, so parents need to work closely with providers to ensure public health guidelines are implemented.
  7. Practice good hygiene. Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice at a normal pace takes 20 seconds). Teach them to sneeze into their elbow, rather than their hand (they probably already know this – schools have been teaching this for a number of years). And make sure they get in the habit of using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when they can’t get to soap and water.
  8. Be empathetic. Don’t try to minimize their feelings or tell them not to worry – reassure them, but let them have feelings; they’re having the same feelings that many adults are.
  9. Limit what they see and hear in the news. Too much information on COVID-19 can cause anxiety or trauma. Pay attention to the tv or radio news playing in the background near the children and adult conversation happening around them.
  10. Give them a mission. Children need to feel empowered so let them do their part to fight the pandemic or protect their families. Ask them for ideas about things they think would help and then give them opportunities to follow through, whether it’s writing hopeful messages in chalk on the sidewalk or just being sure to wash their hands at regular intervals. Kids (and adults) who feel empowered don’t feel as afraid.

And remember Mr. Rogers. The iconic children’s host was frequently consulted about how to talk to children during national emergencies. He said he always remembered what his mother told him during catastrophes when he was a child: “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers – just on the sidelines. If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

FAQ for children

What is Coronavirus or COVID? 

COVID-19 is the short name for “Coronavirus disease 2019” and it’s a new kind of germ that we’re still learning about. It’s made a lot of people sick and most of them will get well but if everyone gets sick at the same time, it’s hard for doctors and nurses to help them all. We want to keep everyone from getting sick at the same time.

What if I get COVID-19?

Children don’t usually get COVID-19 and the ones who do haven’t gotten very sick – they just felt bad for a few days and then they got better. If you get COVID-19, we’ll do the same thing we always do when you’re sick – we’ll put you to bed with crackers and liquids and cartoons for a couple of days until you feel better.

Does anyone get really sick?

Yes, some people who are older or who are already sick can get pretty sick and they need doctors and nurses. That’s why we’re trying to keep from spreading COVID-19; to keep them from all needing doctors at the same time.

How do I help?

Wash your hands a lot for 20 seconds every time! Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, not your hand. Don’t touch your face (to keep germs from getting into your body). You can do your part by  staying out of crowds of people for a couple of weeks.  If as many people as possible can stay home, we can help stop COVID-19.