Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus

Written by: Natalie Fuertes


"Why are they wearing a mask?"


"Is my school going to close?"


"Why does the living room look like Costco?"


I don't know about you, but I've been fielding these questions from my kids all week. As the coronavirus outbreak progresses, they're picking up bits and pieces of information (and misinformation) from the internet, TV, and classmates. With so much uncertainty surrounding this illness, it's tough to really find the words to answer them appropriately, but it’s important to let them know you're there to listen and support them in the midst of all of this confusion.


Here's some tips to help guide your conversations:


Take Care Of Yourself


We're looking at you, parents! Before you can even being talking to your littles about the current situation, check your anxiety and fear.


Kids don't have the same access to information that we do, so they're going to look to you for how to respond. If you’re openly stressing out, they'll only know that whatever is happening is so scary that even their parents are worried.


It helps them to know you’re calm. So if you’re feeling anxious or upset, take some time for yourself to relax - send them to their room to read while you watch your fave show or have that bottle, I mean glass of wine at dinner.


Initiate the Conversation


Don’t be afraid to bring up this difficult topic. You want to be their trusted source of information. And don't make a big deal about it - chat with them while you're sitting on the sofa or at dinner.


Toddlers and preschoolers likely have no information about the current issue, so just remind them about good hygiene practices.


Older children will have a bit more information. Let them speak freely and don't minimize or avoid their concerns. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know it's natural to feel that way.


Be Honest


This one is so important! While we have a responsibility to ease their stress, children have a right to know what's going on. Use age-appropriate language, watch how they react to your conversations, and be sensitive of their anxieties.


If they ask a question and you genuinely don't know the answer, don't lie or guess. Just say "I'm actually not sure, but let's find out". Take the opportunity to research the answer together.


Emphasize That You're There


Ultimately, kids need to know that you're there for them to respond to concerns and questions with compassion and understanding.


Let them know that if they have questions or want to talk about it again, they can come to you. Yes, it can get annoying to have the same conversation multiple times, but it creates a sense of safety and lets them know that you're their safe base to come back to.


At the end of the day, keeping them safe and secure is your job as a parent. Respond to their needs, be a consistent support system, and show that you care.


Stop the Spread Of Stigma


Unfortunately this outbreak has brought with it racial discrimination, so it’s important to check that your children aren't experiencing or contributing to bullying.


Explain that coronavirus has nothing to do with what someone looks like, where they come from, or what language they speak. If they've been bullied, they should feel comfortable telling an adult they trust. Remind them that everyone deserves to be safe at school. Bullying is always wrong and we should do our part to spread kindness and support each other.


Keep it Age-Appropriate


Approach talking to your kids about the coronavirus differently depending on their age and developmental level.


Try to only use words they already understand. Start with what they know about this and build on that. The motive for this should be to give them age-appropriate information to help keep them safe, calm their fears, and answer any questions they might have.


Here's some tips on how to talk to your child at any age:


Talking Tips: Under 6


Kids under 6 are too young to really process the full scope of what's happening on a global level, so be mindful about the conversations you're having with your partner or older children in front of your little ones and shut off any troubling images on TV or social media.


Instead, have a conversation about germs, how people get sick, and things we can do to stay healthy like hand-washing. If they come to you with questions about the coronavirus or something they’ve seen, offer reassurance that your family is safe and you're doing everything you can to stay healthy.


Talking Tips: School-Age


Offer information about the outbreak: what it is, how it spreads, and ways to prevent it. Stay away from talk of people dying. Emphasize that adults are doing everything they can to keep them safe and protected - ‘There's an illness going around, so we have to be extra careful about cleanliness and being around people that seem sick".


They've likely seen people wearing face masks. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just say "They feel it’s their best way to stay healthy, and every family has different strategies. That’s why we're doing a great job washing our hands." You can tell them that the CDC, the group of experts handling this situation, doesn’t think healthy people need to wear masks and that we should save them for doctors and nurses.


Let them know that there are lots of doctors and scientists around the world who are working hard to protect people and that we have great hospitals and medicine.


Talking Tips: Tweens & Teens


Be factual and don’t hide things from them. Stick to the facts and dispel any rumors - keeping in mind they'll pick up things on social media. You can get into the science and politics around the issue. Empower them to look up information from reliable sources like the CDC.


There’s a lot of uncertainty which can lead to anxiety, so let them talk it out. Remind them of past experiences with uncertain challenges and how they coped. As scary as it is, this is huge learning moment for them on how to handle fears, disappointments, and negatives.


On the other hand, they may not be feeling this way at all. Take cues from them. If they're unconcerned, respect that indifference and update them as you feel necessary.

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