As a child psychiatrist, one of the questions I am asked most often these days by parents is how to explain COVID-19 to children when adults themselves are having such a hard time grasping the enormity of what we are living through.
When advising parents, the first thing I recommend is to find out what your child already knows about COVID-19. Ask children what they have already learned about the coronavirus from school, friends and the news. Begin with open-ended questions and show interest and curiosity in their responses. What your child spontaneously offers on the topic can further guide the content of your conversation.
Anxiety can be contagious, so I recommend maintaining a calm tone during your conversation. Take your own emotional temperature before starting these conversations. If you are scrambling to prepare dinner or just watched an emotional news segment, you may not be in the best mindset for this talk. When children detect parental anxiety, they too can become fearful and feel helpless. Even if children do not remember everything you say about the virus, they are likely to remember how they felt during your conversation. If you project a calm and confident tone, your child will likely feel reassured and follow your cues.
Use developmentally appropriate language and monitor how much content you need to share.
With younger children, keep information simple and offer reassurance that adults are there to keep them healthy and safe. Even though adolescents can manage more detailed information, too much information may feel overwhelming and fuel anxiety. Along these lines, set limits on children’s social media and news exposure. Be ready to process what they hear and see through these outlets.
Be honest and truthful with children about the coronavirus and present the facts. It’s understandable to express concern that this is a serious virus that is making some people sick. In doing so, emphasize that there are measures that the community is taking to keep everyone as safe as possible: closing schools, prohibiting social gatherings and encouraging people to stay home. If age appropriate, you can look up facts together on the websites of reliable organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Reading this information together provides an opportunity to clarify prior misconceptions.
Emphasize action steps that your child and family can take to stay healthy and safe. Talking about preventive measures to stay healthy will help your child feel empowered during these uncertain times. Explain how the virus is spread. Stress the importance of washing hands frequently, wearing a mask when appropriate and maintaining social distancing practices. Remind your child to avoid face-touching and avoid touching surfaces when in public settings. Praise children when you see them taking action steps. Your praise will help reinforce healthy behavior and good hygiene.
Ask children if they have any worries about the virus and show interest in their specific concerns. You may be surprised by what your child expresses. For example, some children may be worried their loved ones will die from the virus, while others may fear that social distancing will keep them from playing with their friends or attending camp this summer. Help your child reframe anxious thoughts using factual information.
Children may be afraid that they, their parents, or grandparents may get sick or die from the virus. Remind them that kids tend to have less severe symptoms and that most people who become sick make a full recovery. Demonstrating an interest in children’s specific worries shows them that you are listening and keeps the lines of communication open for further discussion.
Talking with your children frankly and thoughtfully can go a long way in alleviating children’s fears and helping them to understand and grow in these challenging times. Parents — in addition to schools, nonprofit organizations and child-serving professionals — must recognize the challenge in front of them and work together to put kids first. Addressing children’s social-emotional needs and communicating is a crucial first step.
Dr. Sanaz Kumar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant medical director of The Children’s Guild Outpatient Mental Health Clinic and a staff psychiatrist at The Children’s Guild School of Prince George’s County, a special education day school.