News about the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is unavoidable right now, with at least 250 confirmed cases in the United States so far. But how are our children taking in this information, if at all, and should we be talking to them about it?
“I’m already seeing kids worrying a lot about this,” says Katie Hurley, LCSW, author of The Happy Kid Handbook. “Some of the worry stems from conversations or news overheard in their own homes, but some of it also comes from kids talking on the playground. When adults are highly anxious about something, some of that anxiety can trickle down.”
Adults can do a lot to minimize the impact of school gossip and try to calm kid fears about the coronavirus — or any news that feels scary, for that matter. We talked to psychologists and social workers, who shared their tips for the most helpful, calm, and productive ways to have these conversations with children.
Talk about it: Shielding kids from the news can make their anxieties worse.
When the news is scary, it’s natural to try to keep kids away from it and hope it quickly becomes old news without raising their anxieties. But when a subject gets as big as the coronavirus outbreak has, it’s often better to address it head-on, so you can combat misinformation before it spreads and controls the tenor of the conversation.
“It’s up to the grown-ups to start these conversations with our kids,” says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York and author of The Tantrum Survival Guide. “Kids are sponges for the energy they feel around them, and for hearing adults talk about things in whispered tones. Kids that can read are constantly seeing things over your shoulder if you’re on your phone, or catching glimpses of newspaper headlines.”
By now, they’ve probably heard something about the coronavirus, and they might be walking around with questions and fears. “And if they haven’t heard anything about it, you’re not going to put anything scary in their heads,” she says. “You’re going to tell them that some people are getting this new virus, so it’s extra, extra important to wash hands. You’re not planting anything frightening, and if something scary has already been planted, you’re bringing it up first, because you can’t put that responsibility on them.”
Avoiding the subject also sends an implicit message that may be unintentional: that this news is something too scary to even bring up. “The most effective message we can send when we’re telling kids to tolerate their anxiety is a message of, ‘Yes, you’re having these thoughts and feelings, but you can handle them.’ When we don’t tell them about news that is potentially anxiety-provoking, we implicitly communicate that they can’t handle it.” In that way, shielding kids may have the reverse affect: The fears may loom larger because your kids realize you’re trying to hide it from them.
Of course, if your child is already seeking care for their mental health, it’s a good idea to check in with their doctor first. “If your child has a diagnosed mental health issue, like anxiety or depression, or a history of trauma, then the discussion and coverage of coronavirus may be particularly triggering, and you may see an increase in symptoms,” Dr. Hershberg says. “It’s important to monitor your child for this, and to reach out to their mental health care provider as needed for additional guidance and support.”
The primary goal of your conversation is to get across a message of reassurance.
While it’s imperative to talk to kids about news that may be upsetting to them, you don’t have to make it a big, serious conversation. Dr. Hershberg says it’s better if you avoid sitting them down and opening with something ominous like, “We have have a talk.” In fact, it’s better if you keep a casual, informal tone — one that suggests that the problem is being handled.
“The main takeaway for our children is that there are so many doctors, scientists, and other health professionals who are working very hard to help those who are ill and protect those who are healthy,” says Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, a parenting coach based in San Diego, California. “It’s important to provide reassurance and empathize with whatever fears or emotions they may be having.”
Parents should also be aware that children’s anxieties often surface indirectly, so they may be harboring these emotions even if they haven’t brought up specific fears related to the coronavirus. “Children who are afraid of losing you to death might ‘test’ you by misbehaving to see if you love them enough not to abandon them,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “Children may develop sudden fears — of being alone in a room, or left with a babysitter — or they might have nightmares or wet the bed. They may ‘over-react’ and have a meltdown about something that seems trivial to you, which allows them to let off stress by crying or raging.”
Dr. Markham says these kids also need reassurance — reminders that you’re taking good care of yourself, you’re trying to protect yourself as much as you can with good hygiene, and that you are doing everything you can to live a long, healthy life.
Discuss things in an age-appropriate way.
You know your kids best, so it’s up to you to tailor the level of information you give to your child. And, depending on the age of your kids, it’s best to start by probing what they already know. “It’s usually a good idea to start by asking questions about what your child understands, so you can tailor your explanation and reassurance,” says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. “It’s good to know from the start if they have wrong information so you can correct it, and to know their specific worries so you address those directly rather than inadvertently presenting new concerns they may not have even considered.”
As a general rule, though, when you’re talking pre-schoolers, you really want to keep the emphasis on good hand-washing. “You might say, ‘Some people are getting sick right now, so we have to keep washing our hands and making our healthy choices!'” Hurley says. “I always suggest keeping visuals around the house. A picture that shows washing hands with soap while singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ might help preschoolers remember to really give their hands a good wash.” This shouldn’t be scary news to them: They probably hear this every year, from you or someone else, when flu season rolls around.
As they move up in elementary school, it’s more likely they’ve heard the word “coronavirus” specifically. “Facts and strategies are best for this age group,” Hurley says. “You might say, ‘This is a virus that seems to spread quickly between people and it’s happening in countries around the world. The best way to prevent it is by washing hands and staying home if you feel sick.'” Again, it’s good to reassure them that you’re doing everything in your power to keep them safe and healthy.
For older kids: “I’m already hearing of older elementary and middle school students saying things like, ‘You have coronavirus!’ and other taunts using this topic,” Hurley adds. “In addition to making sure your middle schooler understands facts about the disease, it’s also important to talk about the fact that it isn’t funny when people get sick and we don’t make jokes about it. You can also encourage them to say, ‘That’s not funny,’ if they hear these ‘jokes’ around campus.”
Your children feed off your own emotions, so try to be calm.
It’s hard to stay on an even keel, because you probably have your own worries and anxieties, too. But there’s a lot you communicate non-verbally before you even say anything, and kids will notice. (If you’re in a two-parent household, are you the calm parent? If not, maybe let your partner handle this one.)
“Our demeanor is crucial,” Zeichner says. “If we’re anxious or ambivalent, our kids easily pick up on this. It’s often said that emotions are contagious, which is due to our brain chemistry — particularly because our children’s nervous systems feed off of our nervous systems for information and regulation. We have to be and provide the safe place and container for their emotions, rather than contributing to their fears. I like to call it having a ‘calm confidence.'”
If you’re completely unable to assuage your own worries, “It’s a red flag that you’ve exposed yourself too intimately to the news,” Dr. Markham says. “Every time you see more news about this issue, you’re sending yourself back into fight-or-flight mode. It’s our job as parents to manage our own emotions so they don’t adversely affect our children, so it’s imperative for us to move ourselves out of flight-or-flight. It’s important to notice where you’re getting your information about this issue. There are plenty of sources that are using this health challenge to create general fear. Be choosy about who you let influence your attitudes.”
That’s good advice for everyone in the family, too: If you’re trying to project a calm confidence, but you leave a cable news station on that’s blaring the opposite message, your kids will pick up on that, too. “Don’t let children watch TV news,” Dr. Marhkam adds. “It’s purposely designed to keep us engaged by telling us about scary things. And don’t let your children overhear you venting your own fears to other people.”
Quit nagging them about touching their faces.
For the sake of all the children out there: Just stop. Yes, touching your eyes, nose, and mouth helps germs spread. But by now adults have figured out how hard it is to avoid touching their own faces. For kids, this feat is a near-impossibility. (Can you imagine having a “helpful” parent hovering over you pointing out every time you rubbed your eyes?)
“We can do our best to educate them about germs, how germs spread, and how when we keep our hands clean and away from our faces, it helps us stay healthy,” Zeichner says. “But it’s impossible control what our kids do with their hands in these situations.” If you see your kid go in for a nose-scratch, you’re going to have to just let it go.
More Good Resources for Parents
- Ask the Storybots Season 2, Episode 8 (the last episode of the season) delves into how people catch and spread colds, and the characters break it down for really little kids.
- The National Association of School Psychologists has some more guidelines for talking to students about the coronavirus.
- The Child Mind Institute offers tips for talking to anxious children in addition to its own tips for talking about coronavirus. They offer video tips, too.
- Good Housekeeping has its own guide for how to prepare for the coronavirus in your area and how to wash your hands properly.
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