Posted By Mercury Healthcare (formerly Healthgrades) on 03/25/2020

9 Tips for Talking to Kids About Coronavirus

9 Tips for Talking to Kids About Coronavirus

Explaining the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic

On Wednesday March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. As COVID-19 disease spreads around the world, governments are restricting travel and community gatherings, resulting in significant disruptions to everyday life.

Most adults are stressed, scared and uncertain; our children are as well. Here are some tips and suggestions for talking with children about coronavirus, including what information to share, what words to use, when to hold back, and how to calm their fears.

1. Keep calm.

Emotions are “contagious.” That’s why your mood lifts when you spend time with upbeat people and plummets when you hang out with Debbie Downers. We humans are extremely good at sensing and responding to tone of voice and body language, not to mention the spoken word. 

So, it’s essential to handle your own anxiety. Do what you need to do to manage your fears—journal, get outside, talk to a friend, etc. When speaking with your children, keep your voice level, calm and reassuring.

2. Don’t avoid the topic.

You might think you’re doing your child a favor by keeping her away from all coronavirus conversations, but the truth is almost all of our children are aware that something unusual is happening. Most have already heard about the novel coronavirus, and if you don’t share accurate information with your children, they may believe false statements—or imagine scenarios that are even scarier than reality. 

Our children need (and deserve) factual information.

3. Use developmentally appropriate language.

Consider your child’s age and intellectual maturity. Very young children can be told that people are staying home to avoid getting others sick. Elementary school-aged children can handle basic COVID-19 facts: virus; it spreads through sneezes and coughs; washing hands can limit the spread of disease; and adults are working hard to find a cure.

With teenagers, you’ll also have to grapple with their skepticism of authority. Do your best to explain that people are limiting contact to slow the spread of disease so people who become sick can get the care they need. Research together online what other countries are doing to stem the spread, including what works and what doesn’t.

4. Listen to your kids.

Your child’s comments and questions will tell you what they need to know. A middle schooler who complains how “stupid” it is that soccer practice is canceled might be wondering how missing a season will affect their future or might simply miss the camaraderie of playing with friends. You can often get a sense of what your child really wants (or needs) to know by reflecting their comments back to them: “Yeah, that’s tough. I bet you miss your friends, eh?” Use your child’s response to guide your next comments.

5. Offer context.

The news right now is packed with numbers and data. Your child needs you to help him understand this information in the context of his life. Depending on your child’s age and maturity level, you may want to share specific details about what’s going on in your community. If true, based on your local situation, you can let your child know that the risk to him is minimal. 

Older children may need your help vetting reliable sources of information. If your child is spouting advice or messages that sound questionable, visit or together.

6. Shower them with affection.

Children feel unsettled in times of uncertainty. Very young children may regress behaviorally. A preschooler, for instance, might suddenly be afraid of sleeping alone again. Older children may become needier than usual or lash out physically or verbally. 

You can reassure your child by offering frequent hugs and words of love. If you can, spend extra time playing together or hanging out. In fact, deliberately scheduling “together time” in advance of work sessions is one way you can minimize disruptions when it’s time to work. Together time is even more important if your job requires going to the workplace instead of working from home.

7. Emphasize what you can control.

Lack of control is scary. That’s one reason why we adults are so out of sorts: We can’t predict or control what happens next. But we can take steps to protect our physical and emotional health, and we can choose our attitude and actions. 

Talk about the importance of hand hygiene, and make sure your children know how to properly wash their hands. Enlist their help in wiping down doorknobs and other frequently touched surfaces. Talk about the link between sleep, nutrition and good health, and encourage all family members to take good care of their bodies. If you work in the healthcare field, assure your child you are taking the utmost precautions to protect yourself from sick patients.

8. Shut down stigma.

In some circles, the novel coronavirus has been painted as a “foreign virus,” and some people are blaming other people or other countries for the disease. Now is not the time for blame, and racism is always unacceptable. If you hear your child (or anyone else) blaming a particular ethnicity or country for the disease, call them out. Let them know that COVID-19 is an “equal opportunity” disease that is affecting people all over the world and that it’s not okay to make assumptions about anyone based on their appearance or country of origin.

9. Check in regularly.

This is not a one-and-done conversation. As this pandemic progresses, both you and your child will likely experience a bunch of emotions. Regular check-ins will allow you to meet your child’s ever-changing needs and provide additional, updated information.

Some families may want to schedule check-ins; dinner time is a great time to discuss the news. Other families may opt for a more casual approach. If your child doesn’t say anything about coronavirus for a day or so, check in.

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