Knowing what to say to your children about coronavirus is hard.
Every day, you are getting more and more frightening information about the spread of coronavirus. You don’t know whether or not your kids’ school is going to close, if your job is going to be secure, and whether or not your retirement account can outlast this outbreak. It can be really challenging to parent in the midst of such extreme uncertainty. How do you strike the right balance between sharing facts and not frightening your kids with too much information?
Keeping Your Kids Emotionally Safe
Despite your own fears and worries, you know that you need to find a way to keep your kids safe — not just physically, but emotionally, too. You also know that they are getting information from unfiltered and inaccurate sources like their friends and social media. It’s time to make a plan to help your kids to manage the anxiety of coronavirus.
How you choose to protect your kids will be different depending on their ages. You have an important opportunity to model anxiety management for your kids and to help them to feel more personally secure. Recognize, too, that your older kids may need some guidance about what they should or should not say to their younger siblings.
Infants, Toddlers, & Preschoolers
Babies and very young children may not be very verbal but they do pick up on emotions and can be negatively impacted by them. It can be very scary for young kids when their caregiver seems unpredictable or unavailable emotionally, for example. Other than keeping them physically safe, your job as a parent is to control your own reactions and manage your own fears.
Handling Coronovirus Stressors with Very Young Children
Keep predictable routines or make new ones that you can maintain while you quarantine at home.
Where your old routine may include taking your child to the grocery store or in the stroller to the mall, you need to create new plans that don’t require you being around crowds and that keep your day reasonably busy, predictable, and positive.
Keep the TV news off when your child is awake.
Your young child has no way to understand the information, but s/he can see what it does to you. Kids watch their parents and use parents’ reactions as a guide for how they themselves should think and feel. This means you need to limit your access to potentially frightening information, especially in front of your kids.
Distract yourself and your kids with fun projects.
Set up a tent or a blanket fort in your living room and fill it with stuffed animals, good books, and pillows. Use this as a place to snuggle, to dole out hugs, and to make your kids feel attended to in ways they understand.
Understand that behavioral disruptions like temper tantrums, tearfulness, and acting out can be a symptom of ambient stress.
Your child may not know or understand why the world feels different, but they may be able to sense it. Imagine how scary it is to feel all of that uncertainty but have no way of making sense of it. When we adults feel out of control so do our kids.
School-aged children typically spend more time away from their homes and families than young children. This means many opportunities in which your child can hear a lot of scary information about coronavirus and its risks without the benefit of fact or parental filtering. While you may feel reluctant to talk about the virus — in case you are introducing anxiety that wasn’t already there — don’t be. Your child’s friends, classmates, and fellow bus riders have gotten there first. You do, however, need to be careful about how you talk about it and what you say.
Talking with Your School-Aged Child about Coronavirus
Find out what your child knows already.
“Hey, bud, you have probably been hearing about a sickness called the coronavirus in the news or at school. What kinds of things have you heard?” Knowing what information versus misinformation your child has heard will help you figure out what you need to say.
Read up on the basic facts.
School-aged children are drawn to knowing facts and will typically ask a lot of questions. You do have to be careful here. Knowing the escalating death toll will be too scary for your child to handle. Knowing, though, that there are few cases that seem to cause problems in children may make your child feel less anxious. You can get factual information from sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Explain the virus in simple but factual terms.
“There’s a sickness called coronavirus that is going around that can especially make old people really sick. Most people who aren’t old are going to be just fine; they can get the virus and just get a little bit sick, but old people can get very ill. That means that all of us in the United States are trying really hard to protect older people by staying inside more and staying away from big places where we might get them sick.” Do not be surprised if your child then worries about his or her grandparents. You will need to have answers ready about what Grandma and Grandpa are doing to stay safe.
Give your child concrete tasks to do. This is a way to feel more control in a situation in the short term. For example, enlist your child’s help in restocking soap in your bathrooms. Get your child to set up hand sanitizer stations in your house and make signs to “advertise” them. Solicit their ideas for setting up your new daily schedule and create a list together of “rainy day” activities they can do inside.
If you have to be home, make it fun (and comfortably predictable).
A daily routine can go a long way in making your child feel safe. Sprinkling in plenty of fun activity time — in which you are fully present with your child — can help you turn this scary time into something more positive and memorable.
We’re in unprecedented times. It makes sense that you may not always know what to say or do to help your child. However, understanding your role in creating a sense of safety and predictability for your child can go a very long way.