Making sense of COVID-19 can be overwhelming and stressful, not only for adults but also for children. Avoiding the difficult conversation about COVID-19 can lead to unnecessary fear and it’s important for an adult to help children process the information they are seeing or hearing.
Here are a few tips for talking to children about COVID-19:
1. Stay calm and be aware of your own feelings.
If you are feeling anxious, take some time to calm down before talking to your children. Children may pick up on your anxiety through what you say and do. To help you stay calm, maintaining self-care practices — like getting enough rest — is essential and will help you be prepared to care for your children.
2. Listen and provide reassurance.
Give your child the time and space to share their feelings. Listening will let children know they can come to you with any questions. Then, validate their feelings and reassure them they are safe. Let your child know there are grown-ups working hard to deal with COVID-19.
3. Help them understand with appropriate language.
During your conversation, use age-appropriate information that your child can understand. For example, the way you talk to a preschooler versus a teenager will be very different. You should also avoid language that might blame others or lead to stigma around COVID-19.
4. Find out what your child knows and follow their lead.
Ask if your child has heard about COVID-19 and establish what they know. If you did that previously when Safer at Home orders started and when schools closed, you should do it again as time has passed and things have changed. What kids have learned or heard on social media, overhearing adult conversations or learning that someone they know tested positive or died from COVID-19, can change how they are feeling.
For a young child, you may ask, “Do you know why people are wearing masks?” For a teenager, you may ask more directly, “Are you worried someone [else] we know may get the virus?” It is important to listen for misconceptions that your child may have about COVID-19 and provide clarification. Try your best to answer honestly and if you do not know something, it is okay to admit it while assuring them you will try your best to find out.
Here are a few actions to take to help your child better cope with changes due to COVID-19:
1. Take control over what you can.
When children and adults experience stress, it is not uncommon to feel helpless. Taking action can help children feel empowered and safe. Talk to kids about what they CAN do to stay healthy such as washing their hands for 20 seconds before and after they eat, after using the bathroom and after blowing their nose or coughing.
2. Teach them how to reduce the spread of germs.
Remind children to stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing, and if they’re coughing or sneezing, to do so into a tissue or their elbow. Most importantly, teach them how to wash their hands properly and lead by example.
3. Try to maintain a normal routine.
The closing of schools can significantly impact everyone’s normal routine. Try to maintain your normal routine as much as possible to reduce stress. Structure your days with regular mealtimes and bedtimes. Identify times or goals for educational activities or to complete class assignments. As much as possible, find ways for kids to maintain contact with their friends and family by phone or video calls to avoid social isolation.
4. Monitor television watching and social media use.
Try to find a balance between screen time and non-screen time activities. This can be difficult as parents are under increased stress and children suddenly do not have school, leaving them with a significant amount of free time. Provide your child with a few activity choices instead of television or social media as a useful alternative. Everyone should limit their screen time as watching television constantly and frequently being on social media can actually increase anxiety.
For the latest tips and news from Children’s Wisconsin, go to chw.org/newshub.
If you have questions about your child’s health, please contact your child’s doctor. If they don’t have a doctor, call 2-1-1 and an operator can director you to the nearest community health clinic or other needed resources.