Whether your kindergartners are being encouraged to wash their hands more frequently, your middle schooler is being sent home with extra homework to prepare for school closures, or your high schooler is googling and chatting with their friends, your child has inevitably heard about the novel coronavirus. While this is an uncertain and anxiety-provoking time for everyone, it can be especially frightening for children and teens who may have limited access to reliable information. They may feel confused or worried and it is, therefore, important for parents to be able to speak to their children about this virus in a way that is both developmentally appropriate and reassuring, while also being open and honest. Here are some tips for how to most effectively speak to your children about the coronavirus:
- Stay calm. As adults, we are all the biggest mirrors for children’s emotional reactions and how they respond to situations. When your children inevitably approach you with questions or concerns, it is crucial to remain calm despite the uncertainty and fear. This in turn will help them to stay calm and learn to manage their anxiety. This may mean, first and foremost, dealing with your own anxiety during this trying time. Ensure that you are taking care of your own mental health and seeking support and assistance from people you trust.
- Provide appropriate reassurance. It is important to re-assure and comfort your children when they are afraid. It is equally as important to ensure that you are honest and do not tell them anything that is untrue. Do not promise your children that they or you won’t get sick, but remind them that we are all doing everything we can to keep everyone healthy. Provide reassurance that the reason for a lot of the seemingly drastic measures we are taking (social distancing, school closures) is actually to reduce the spread of this illness and prevent more people from getting sick. Encourage them to do their part in keeping others safe and healthy. Reassure your children that if they do get sick, they will be given care and treatment and that their bodies are healthy and will help them to get better.
- Stick to the facts. Given the rapid spread of this virus and the attention it is garnering in the media, it is easy for facts to get lost in the storm of information. Let your children know that when kids and teens (and most other people) do get sick, their symptoms tend to be mild and they tend to recover well.
- Don’t give too much information. There is some information about the coronavirus that, though true, can be particularly frightening to children and teens. It is okay to stick to the basic facts and not provide more information than they might need. As a parent, you are the best person to gauge how much information is “too much” and what might scare your child. If you are talking about some of these more upsetting nuances with other adults, make sure your children are out of earshot.
- Answer their questions and do not avoid the conversation. Don’t avoid talking to your children about the coronavirus. While not engaging in these conversations may seem helpful and a good way to protect your children, the lack of conversations allows children and teens to create their own (potentially scary) stories of what is going on. When adults can be open and honest, children’s fears can be met with facts. Your informed input will be integrated as a part of their understanding of the situation.
- Talk about other things. It is okay to answer your child’s questions and then move on. Talk about something you are excited about this summer, something they learned in school, or a fun memory from the past year. While it may feel like the coronavirus is taking all of our attention and mental space, it is important to allow ourselves, and our children, time to focus on and think about other things.
- Take appropriate precautions. Follow the CDC recommendations for best practices during this time. Practice good hand washing (but not excessive hand washing) , avoid touching your mouth and face, sneeze and cough into your elbow or a tissue, and stay home if you are unwell. While engaging in these practices, talk to your children about the importance of them and how these practices are the best ways to remain healthy and to protect others.
Despite the uncertainty and worry that we are all facing in this time, it is important to do our best to keep calm and help keep our children calm. If you feel as though your child is abnormally anxious or their worries about the coronavirus is interfering with their abilities to sleep, do school work, or enjoy other activities, you may want to consider consulting with a CBT therapist for ways to help them better manage their anxiety.