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Talking with Children about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Sara Zimmerman MSW, LICSW

In this time of uncertainty, parents may wonder how to talk with their children about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) without creating additional anxiety. You know your child best. Trust your instincts when it comes to communicating necessary safety information while also providing reassurance and comfort.

The following tips may be helpful in guiding this communication:

  1. Consider the child’s developmental level.

    Young children need developmentally appropriate information. Most do well with simple, factual explanations and being available/open for questions as they arise. You can acknowledge that they have likely heard about the coronavirus, that it can make people sick and that it may change the way we do things for a while. Empower them by stressing how they can help keep themselves and other people safe with things like hand washing, helping clean and staying home. Acknowledge their frustration with changes in activities and provide lots of reassurance and loving support. Try to maintain some structure in their daily routines and, as always, catch them being good and praise the behaviors you want to encourage.

    Older children may be particularly susceptible to false information and rumors. Be available for them to talk and ask questions. Give them honest, accurate information, but remember that they need reassurance too. Acknowledge their frustration with changes in routines, activities and feeling isolated from their friends. Anticipate mood changes as they cope with the “new normal,” and involve them in creating some daily “rewards” like fun family activities, a special meal, or connecting with friends and family virtually. Encourage physical activity and self-care.

  2. Place limits on the amount of news, media and conversations in your home that focus solely on the pandemic.

    All of us need safe spaces and mental breaks from the stress. Even background news, on the radio or TV, filters into our children’s brains. They have a harder time understanding the nuances of conversations; separating what is speculation or sensationalism and what is factual. The constant influx of news, even indirectly, creates an atmosphere of anxiety. Try to limit the amount of TV/media or watch after your children are in bed. Give them opportunities for a break from the heaviness of this situation. Share positive news, such as acts of good will in the community, or even something fun to make them laugh.

  3. Model self-care.

    You can communicate using all the right words, but it is equally important to remember that children tune in to your non-verbal cues. Understandably, this is a hard time for all of us. Balancing your children’s needs, your work needs, financial stress, health concerns and uncertainty about the future is incredibly challenging. Take this time to practice and model self-care. Let go of what you can, whether that be a clean house or concerns about your child’s academic progress during this time. Find ways to care for yourself: Take a walk or work out with an exercise video, read a good book, take a nap or a warm bath, call a friend or family member, connect online with a faith community, practice yoga or listen to a meditation. If you feel overwhelmed and need additional support, remember that you are not alone. Reach out. Call someone you love, call a mental health provider or a crisis number. This is hard. Take care of yourself so that you can care for your kids.
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