Talking to your children about COVID-19
Even though children are out of school, they are likely still hearing about COVID-19 from your conversations or from the news. It is important to ensure they have reliable information and you are available to ease their fears and anxieties.
Dr. Krystal Simmons, clinical associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, studies school psychology and counseling. We spoke with her for advice on how to speak with your children during a public crisis such as COVID-19.
Q: How do children react differently to situations like this?
“Children are very diverse and their reactions to extraordinary situations like the coronavirus pandemic will differ accordingly. Caregivers may observe a range of responses such as increased curiosity, fearfulness, or a lack of care, which are all normal responses.
Nevertheless, it is important for caregivers to monitor their child’s behaviors and exposure to the crisis. Reactions of concern include:
- Fear of separating from their caregiver
- Nightmares/sleep disturbance
- Reluctance to leave home
- Persistent worrying and intrusive thoughts
- Recurring fears about becoming sick or death
No matter the response, it can be helpful to have a conversation about the outbreak.”
Q: What is the best way to speak to children about COVID-19? Is this different for each age group? How?
“Preparing for the conversation: Prior to conversing with your child about COVID-19, caregivers should learn the facts about the virus. Obtaining information from sources such as the CDC will help in answering questions your child may have.
The type of discussion you will have with your child will likely depend on your child’s age and personality; yet, it is important to understand that children tend to have an egocentric view of the world.
Caregivers know their child best, but below are some guidelines to how children cope based on their stage of development:
Toddlers: Toddlers will not have a full understanding of the events related to the coronavirus. However, they may notice the underlying emotions adults are showing because of the pandemic. Toddlers tend to express their feelings through play, so you may notice play themes of worry and isolation for example. If a caregiver is engaged in social isolation, the child may frequently ask questions such as “when are you coming home mommy” even if the question was answered before. During this stage, it is important for caregivers to provide routines, structure, reassure safety, and provide honest, clear, and simple responses to your child’s answers.
Children up to the age of 8: These children are concrete thinkers and tend to have a literal understanding of the virus’ impact. At this age, children may have increased concerns of whether they or someone they know will get the coronavirus, but their creative imaginations may influence their perception of how the virus spreads. Hence, it is important to approach discussions with children this age in a way that is clear, honest, yet simplistic.
Preteens: Although preteens are still concrete thinkers, children are more capable of abstract thinking around the age of 9 to 12. They have a better understanding of concepts such as anxiety and death. If the virus directly affects someone they know, a child within this age range may believe they were directly responsible for that person’s illness. For example, “All the restaurants are closed now. If daddy hadn’t taken me to get ice cream, he wouldn’t be sick.”
Teenagers: A majority of teenagers will have a full grasp of the pandemic’s significance, along with the physical and social affects. However, they may also believe they are invincible to contracting the virus. Having frank, honest, and deeper conversations may be appropriate at this developmental stage.
Having the conversation: A good starting point to have a conversation about the coronavirus is to see if your child is interested in having the conversation, avoid pushing the issue if they are not comfortable or ready to discuss.
Once you have identified a supportive environment for open dialogue, start with learning about what your child already knows. Inquiries about what they have heard, seen, or read is a good conversation guide. Some caregivers may be surprised at how much their child knows, but it is best to ensure your child has accurate knowledge.
Therefore, confirm information or clarify inaccuracies about what your child shares. It is imperative that caregivers are honest with their child to maintain rapport; it sets the tone for the conversation and your child’s willingness to engage in similar conversations in the future.
Throughout the discussion, it is helpful for caregivers to reassure their child’s safety at home, but avoid making promises about the unknowns such as no one in your family will ever get the coronavirus. Be comfortable with acknowledging that you may not know all the answers, especially as norms evolve daily.
Overall, this would be a time to engage in more listening, validating, and clarifying inaccuracies rather than probing and lecturing. To reinforce your conversation, you may use a child-friendly website such as BrainPOP for you and your child to view.”
Q: What are the recommendations for both monitoring and minimizing anxiety during this time?
“Children are very observant and may take cues of how to respond to stressful situations by modeling their caregiver’s responses. A child’s personality may also influence their response; some children are inherently more anxious compared to their peers. Children who have experienced a recent loss or traumatic event are especially vulnerable to prolonged stress and exposure to graphic details regarding a crisis, so it is important to monitor them more closely.
If anxious, irritable, depressed or aggressive behaviors become more pronounced than what is typical for your child and is significantly affecting their daily functioning, consider working with a licensed and qualified mental health professional. Several mental health professionals are resorting to telepsychology services as a health accommodation during these times.
With all of these points in mind, it is best to engage in prevention measures to reduce anxiety. Reduce exposure to media reports and conversations between adults regarding the virus. Ways caregivers can help to minimize anxiety include:
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings and normalize common stress responses.
- Stay calm during your child’s anxious moments.
- Maintain structure and a routine at home, especially for children who are no longer going to a physical school setting.
- Allow time for play. Have children engage in activities they enjoy, especially physical activities.
- Give children a sense of control. Explain that good hygiene practices, such as handwashing, helps to stop the spread of the virus.
Be a good role model. Acknowledge your own anxiety and find a place to calm before interacting with others, model good hygiene practices, and allow opportunities to converse with your child as needed.”
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