Talking to kids about coronavirus

Staying calm and being truthful will help lessen your child’s anxiety.

Published 13 Mar 2020, 10:32 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
Photograph by Tetra Images / Getty Images

With schools potentially closing and big events being cancelled, your child probably has questions and concerns about coronavirus, or COVID-19. That can be tough to talk about, especially when you probably have just as many questions and concerns.

"Kids need to feel safe and not worry," says Katie Ryder, a doctor of family medicine with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group in Rockville, MD. "That’s our biggest role as the trusted adults in children’s lives, to help them do that."

Here are some tips on how to talk to your children about coronavirus.

First of all, stay calm

We know: Easier said than done. But kids pick up on how you’re feeling. If you’re showing panic or anxiety, so will they. Instead, validate their concerns to show that you understand why they might be nervous—and that a little nervousness is OK. "But it’s important for them to know that there’s no need to panic," Ryder says.

Then talk calmly about what’s happening, and reassure them that people are working very hard to make things better. "Kids need to know that grownups are working together to make sure kids are safe," says Rebecca Goertzel, principal at Chautauqua Elementary School in Vashon Island, WA, off the coast of Seattle.

Meet children where they are

Very young children might not be asking any questions, and in that case there’s no reason to discuss the topic. But other kids will want answers, and parents shouldn’t shy away from talking about what’s going on. "Be honest," Goertzel says. "But don't scare them or become alarmist." Limiting exposure to television reports and social media—especially as the infection rate continues to increase—can help, since too much can get those active imaginations running toward something akin to a zombie apocalypse. 

Help them feel like they're in control

One of the best ways to calm children is to help them feel like they can protect not just themselves—but other people as well. Tell them that when they follow the rules for staying healthy, that helps other people stay safe since the child won’t be spreading the disease. "This is their job—to do what they already know they should be doing to keep themselves and others healthy," Ryder says.

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So as you remind them how not to get sick—washing their hands, sneezing and coughing into their elbows, not touching their faces—help them understand that these actions also protect others. "And make it fun," Goertzel says. "Have them gently bump elbows instead of giving high-fives."

Be realistic about them getting sick

The good news is that few children seem to be coming down with coronavirus, and when they do catch the disease, their symptoms tend to be mild. Explain to them that they’ve been sick before with similar illnesses, like the common cold or the flu, and that they’ve gotten better. Coronavirus is likely to affect them the same way.

Still, they’re probably worried about other family members as well. Again explain that most adults with the disease have gotten better, and that doctors and scientists are working hard to protect everyone. As for grandma and grandpa? "We’re advising that if parents or children have cold symptoms to put those visits off," Ryder says. Comfort kids with plenty of phone calls and video chats to show them things are OK.

Keep up a normal routine

Whether you’re heeding "social distancing" warnings or your child’s school has temporarily closed, it’s important to make kids feel like their lives won’t be too disrupted. Establish a daily routine at home, and (following your doctor’s advice) continue doing normal activities like practicing piano, bedtime reading, cooking together, or even playing in the backyard. "In most cases (symptom-free) children can still play with friends," Ryder says. "Just remind them about personal space. Keep some distance so if their friends sneeze or cough, it’s not all over them—or the other way around."

Consider adding new at-home activities at the same time every day, such as video chatting with grandma and grandpa, exercising (call it a dance party!), or crafting. Being cooped up and away from friends won't be much fun. "But by staying home, kids and families are helping," Goertzel says. "They're part of the solution."

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