Expert Advice on How to Talk to Your Kids About the Coronavirus
Will I get sick? Why are they closing the schools? I’m scared. I’m upset that I can’t go to ballet class.
These are some of the questions and comments I’ve heard from my three kids over the past week. Given the recent school closures, lack of toilet paper, and bombarding messages about handwashing, it is understandable why kids may feel confused or scared. Most parents are fielding similar concerns and are wondering how to respond.
Recognize Your Feelings
Before you discuss the new coronavirus, COVID-19, with your kids, acknowledge your own feelings about the situation.
“It is important to recognize your own anxiety before talking to your child. If I am feeling anxious, I choose not to talk to my child. Instead, I allow myself to calm down and then approach the topic,” says Dr. Soma Mandal, internist and partner at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
Even though you may feel anxious you should try to refrain from showing these feelings to your child. Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a Northwestern University professor, clinical psychologist, says, “In the therapy world, we stress the importance of ‘regulating the regulator.’ In order to be able to provide regulation, parents need to feel regulated.”
She recommends that parents practice self-care by staying informed, but also unplugging. She also suggests that parents shore up their foundation by eating healthy food, getting adequate sleep, and exercise. She stresses limiting alcohol and drug use and taking breaks before becoming irritable or impatient.
Dr. Robin Goodman, a clinical psychologist, agrees with Dr. Solomon by saying, “Fear can be contagious so above all, parents need to monitor and manage their own worry, especially with their children. Being calm is also contagious, so it is better to spread calm.”
Validate Their Feelings
When you recognize and accept your child’s feelings as being valid, then it can help them to feel calm and understood. Dr. Solomon says, “Our goal as parents is to validate their stress and encourage them to practice healthy coping strategies like distraction, focusing on what’s going well, exercise, and radical acceptance (radical acceptance means reminding ourselves that this is beyond our control).”
Assess What They Already Know
Kids have heard about Coronavirus from their friends, the internet, and on TV. Before providing any information ask them what they know about the pandemic. Dr. Damon Korb, a behavioral and developmental pediatrician at The Center of Developing Minds, says, “Children need information, just like adults. Start by finding out what they already know. Clear up any misconceptions and explain the concern at a developmentally appropriate level.”
Dr. Mandal agrees: “I invite my daughter to let me know what she has heard first and what she has questions about so we can start the conversation there. I give her the room to let me know her feelings about it, including feeling scared and confused.”
Be Honest and Reassure
It is okay to let your child know you don’t have all the answers. You can also explain the reasons for the school closures are to try to prevent the spread of the virus. Dr. Solomon explains that living through this pandemic is challenging because of the uncertainty. She says, “We don’t know when life is going to return to normal, but we also don’t want to lie to our kids. We can tell kids the essential truth and reassure them that you will be together every step of the way.”
She suggests using distraction as a method of coping. She recommends shifting the focus away from the coronavirus and towards a game, a walk, or a movie.
“When you are reassuring children it is always important to be honest,” she says. “We talk about how one can get sick, but how you can protect yourself the best way you can. Washing hands with soap and water, covering a cough and sneeze, staying away from other sick people, eating healthy food, and getting plenty of sleep is what I call ways to overpower the germs.”
Dr. Korb explains that when children are anxious parents should be patient, tolerant, and provide reassurance. He says, “Reassure your child by explaining the steps that your family is taking to remain safe, such as social distancing, hand washing, and visiting a doctor if feeling sick.”
Create and Maintain Routines
Routines provide comfort, security and predictability for children, so it is important to create and continue these practices. Dr. Lea Lis, adult and child psychiatrist, says, “Stick to familiar routines. Wake them up the same time every day. Go to bed at the same time every day, and make sure to get plenty of exercise, even if all of their sports and activities are canceled.”
She also recommends prioritizing education since kids love to learn and learning provides a distraction from their worries.
Dr. Korb says, “Parents can emphasize the things that are not going to change, like the routines and rules and expectations. Bedtimes will be the same. Rules on electronics will still exist. Kids can still chat with friends and relatives through the phone, games, and the internet.”
Kids are resilient. When we provide a safe, comforting environment for them, it will help them to preserve through this pandemic.
Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of three children. Her writing has been published in “The New York Times,” “Parents Magazine,” “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessing,” and more. You can find her on Twitter @CherylMaguire05.