Children ask a lot of questions. We encourage them to be inquisitive. We try our best to answer their questions, or depending on their age, steer them to the right place to find answers. Sometimes their questions are challenging. Explaining why they can’t play with their friends, or go to school or why we need to wear masks can be tricky. How can you answer those kinds of questions about the pandemic and the steps we need to take to stay healthy without frightening children?
If you are a parent, caregiver or just find yourself in the position of answering questions about the coronavirus pandemic it’s understandable that you might feel unsure about what to share, how much to say, and ways to navigate COVID-19. You’re not alone.
As the COVID-19 health crisis continues to unfold, many people are wondering how to talk to children about the impacts of the virus in a way that will be reassuring and not make them more worried than they already may be. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to talk with children about such public health emergencies. However, here are some suggestions you may find helpful.
How To Start the Conversation with Children About COVID-19
A good place to start is learning about COVID-19 from reputable sources, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and local health officials. Get the facts about how to protect your family from infection. Then you’ll be prepared to talk to your kids and provide them with the support they need during a difficult time. Keep in mind that children can often sense if you’re feeling stressed and confused.
If possible, choose a time when children are likely to want to talk, such as at mealtimes. Ask what they already know and what questions and concerns they have. Everyone reacts differently, but let their questions guide your discussion. Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. At the same time, it’s best not to force children to talk about things unless or until they’re ready.
Listen and answer their questions with facts in a way that they can understand. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest. Let them know that there are a lot of rumors and false information and that you’ll help them learn the facts. Answer questions honestly. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up.” It may affect their ability to trust you or believe any future reassurances. If it’s appropriate for their age, you can show them how to search for the answer on a reliable website.
Talk with your children frequently to see how they’re coping and offer them regular updates as more is learned about COVID-19 and the precautions families should take. Encourage them to express their feelings, letting them know that it’s ok to be upset. Also encourage them to come to you with any new questions. This builds trust.
Share simple facts about COVID-19 that are appropriate:
- Define it. COVID-19 is caused by a germ (virus) that can make the body sick. People who have COVID-19 may have a cough, fever and trouble taking deep breaths. But some people, especially kids, who have the virus may not feel sick at all or may have mild symptoms similar to having a cold.
- Explain how it spreads. The most common way it spreads is by entering people’s bodies when it’s on their hands and they touch their mouths, noses or eyes. If someone who has the infection coughs or sneezes on you from a close distance—closer than six feet—that also can spread the virus. A virus is so tiny that you can’t see it. This is why it’s important to wash your hands often and try not to touch your mouth, nose or eyes.
- Talk about what’s being done. You’re hearing so much about COVID-19 because it’s a new illness that has not been seen before. Experts around the world are working hard every day to learn about COVID-19 and how to keep people safe.
Discuss how children can stay safe:
- Take practical steps. Talk with children about all the practical measures we can take to stay safe. Encourage frequent and proper hand-washing—especially each time you come home, before meals and after blowing the nose, coughing or sneezing. Show them how to sneeze or cough into a tissue and throw it in the trash or cough into a bent elbow. Clean and disinfect frequently touched items and surfaces around the house.
- Demonstrate effective hand-washing. Show your kids how to create tiny soap bubbles by rubbing their hands together and how to get the soap between fingers and all the way to the ends of their fingers, including their thumbs. Encourage your kids to sing the entire “Happy Birthday” song twice (about 20 seconds) so they spend the time they need to get their hands clean.
- Stay home whenever possible. Explain to children how this can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Let them know that when the risks of COVID-19 become much lower or go away, they can look forward to being back in their normal routine.
- Practice physical distancing. Avoid close contact with people outside of home, even if they don’t appear to be sick. Pretend there’s a bike between you and the person you’re standing near, keeping about six feet apart from each other. Instead of giving high fives, fist bumps or hugs to people outside your family, give smiles and waves to say hello.
- Don’t forget ways to stay healthy. Healthy habits include eating a well-balanced diet, getting regular physical activity and getting a good night’s sleep.
What can I do to help children cope?
- Remain calm. Children will look to you for clues about how to react. Remind them that how they feel right now is OK, and encourage a hopeful outlook for the future.
- Keep to a routine. Keep or create new family routines, such as learning activities, meal times, chores, relaxation and bedtimes. This structure helps children predict what’s planned and feel as though they have control. Use a whiteboard or paper to display a daily schedule at home. Checking off tasks can encourage a sense of accomplishment.
- Limit access to news. There may be times of constant news about COVID-19 from all types of media that may heighten fears about the disease. Limit reading, hearing or watching the news. Also limit social media use that may expose children to rumors and false information. Be cautious about discussing the news and your fears in front of children.
- Be creative about ways to have fun. Encourage activities that children enjoy, such as puzzles, art projects, reading and music. Create opportunities for family time. Play games, have them join in on cooking projects and enjoy home movie nights. Head to CML’s brand new online shop for fun ways to play from home!
- Enjoy virtual socializing. Connect with friends and family members using phone calls and FaceTime or similar apps. This can help everyone feel less isolated and can help build and maintain relationships. A great way to connect with other caregivers and little ones is through CML’s virtual programming with Miss Savannah on Wednesdays at 10am.
- Avoid placing blame. Be careful not to blame specific people, including those in a cultural, racial or ethnic group.
- Seek advice if necessary. If you notice persistent problems with sleep, changes in eating habits or difficulty concentrating on typical tasks, or if children display a persistent sense of hopelessness, excessive sadness or overwhelming worry, contact your doctor or a mental health professional for advice.