Talking to Children about COVID19 (coronavirus)
Listening to the news and reading about the increasing numbers of those in our communities suffering from COVID-19 can make even the most resilient of us feel almost overwhelmed as we try to make sense of what is going on all around us. When children digest information about what is going on from the news on TV, in the newspapers or overhear others discussing it, they can feel scared, confused or anxious – as much as adults do.
Children, however, tend to respond to anxiety and stress differently from adults; some may react right away; while others may show signs that they are having a difficult time much later. It follows therefore that parents may not always know when their child needs help and unsurprisingly many parents are now wondering how to talk to their children about the current outbreak of coronavirus.
Of course this can be hard because as parents we want, more than anything to keep our children feeling happy, secure and shield them from the more disturbing aspects of life. It is however vital that we tackle this challenging issue because if we choose to protect our children and not talk to them about the coronavirus we run the very real risk that they will hear a more graphic version of it elsewhere.
Dr Angharad Rudkin, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southampton writing in The Times (14.03.19) advises that when events like the current outbreak of coronavirus dominate the news it is important that as parents we do our best to ensure that our children are equipped to make sense of the situation, she advised the following:
“Stay factual, stay calm, don’t make promises and don’t dwell”
Children need our calm, empathetic presence. They need accurate information offered in just the right amount. They also need emotional connection, predictable everyday routines and practical strategies such as thorough, regular hand washing that can reduce their risk of infection while at the same time increasing their resilience and sense of control. It will also be important to remind children, at regular intervals, that family members, teachers and all the other adults who care for them are there to keep them safe and healthy.
Supporting younger children
With younger children, it’s about treading a careful line between giving them just enough information whilst not dwelling on it. Dr Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist and author advises:
“They love having a solution to focus on – it empowers them and gives them a sense of control. So give them their own hand–sanitizers, encourage them to wash their hands often and try not to touch their face. You can also remind them that the virus doesn’t seem to affect children.”
Parents can also help to prevent children from experiencing an exaggerated sense of threat by giving them an opportunity to express their beliefs and gently correct any misinformation.
Supporting older children
With older children, aged 11-plus onwards, it will be important to explain that sometimes events like the current outbreak of coronavirus seem to happen for no reason, and it is better to share the basic information rather than unnecessary, explicit details with your child. If your child asks for more information explain the essentials but use the opportunity to reassure your child that you, and the other adults who care for them are keeping them safe.
Older children may be able to cope with watching the news but if the images or information seems disturbing it will be appropriate to explain how society tends to escalate fears and encourage them to interrogate the source of their news. They need to know the difference between news from the BMJ (British Medical Journal) and from someone’s random blog. A genuine conversation can go a long way to enabling children to feel safe and make sense of things. It can also go a long way towards increasing their empathy, sensitivity and understanding.
Possible reactions to COVID-19
Preschool Children, 0-5 years
- Very young children may express anxiety and stress by thumb sucking or wetting the bed at night.
- They may fear sickness, strangers, darkness or monsters and become clingy with a parent or familiar adult e.g. a teacher or caregiver and want to stay in a place where they feel safe.
- They may express their understanding of the outbreak in their play or tell exaggerated stories about it.
- Infants and Toddlers, 0-2 years old, cannot understand that something bad in the world is happening, but they may recognise when their caregiver is upset. They may start to show the same emotions as their caregivers, or they may act differently; like crying for no reason or withdrawing from people and not playing with their toys.
- Children, 3-5 years, may not be able to understand the effects of an outbreak. If they are very upset by news of the outbreak, they may have difficulty adjusting to change and loss. They depend on the adults around them to help them feel better.
Early Childhood to Adolescence, 6-19 years
Children and teenagers in this age range may have some of the same reactions to anxiety and stress linked to the outbreak of Coronavirus as younger children. Younger children in this age range often begin to want much more attention from their parents or caregivers. They may stop doing their homework or helping with chores at home.
- Children, 6-10 years, may fear going to school and stop spending time with friends. They may have trouble paying attention and tend to do poorly with school work overall. Some may become aggressive for no clear reason, or they may act younger than their age by asking to be fed and/or dressed by their parent or caregiver.
- Youth and Adolescents, 11- 19 years, go through many physical and emotional changes because of their developmental stage. It is likely therefore that it may be even harder for them to cope with the added anxiety that may be associated with learning about the outbreak of Coronavirus.
- Older adolescents may deny their reactions to themselves and their caregivers and respond with a begrudging `I’m OK’ or silence when they are upset. Alternatively they may complain about physical aches or pains because they cannot identify just what is really bothering them emotionally. Some may start arguments at home, and resist any structure or authority. They may also engage in risky behaviours such as using alcohol or drugs.
How Parents & Caregivers Can Support Children in Managing Their Responses to Covid 19 (Coronavirus)
With the appropriate support from key adults, children and young people can learn how to manage their stress in response to Coronavirus and take steps to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy. The most important ways to support children and young people is to make sure that they feel connected, cared about and loved.
- Pay attention and be a good listener
Parents and caregivers can help children express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, playing and singing. Encourage children to talk about the things that make them anxious and stressed. Accept their feelings and reassure them that it is OK for them to feel sad, upset, or stressed. Crying is often a way for children to relieve stress and grief.
- Encourage them to ask questions
Ask older children & adolescents what they know about the outbreak.
What are they hearing from friends or seeing on TV or the Internet? As far as it is possible to do so watch the news coverage with them but as far as it is possible to do so limit their access to a constant flow of information so that they have time away from reminders about the outbreak of Coronavirus. Don’t let talking about the outbreak of Coronavirus take over either your family time or classroom discussion for long periods of time. You could schedule an hour a day to have these conversations in your house.
- Encourage positive activities
Adults can help children and young people recognise the good that can come out of the outbreak of Coronavirus. The current edition of Psychology Today lists the 5 ways that our world is already a better place as a result of the global response to the pandemic:
- We are no longer inattentive to what matters.
- Cooperation is spreading on an unprecedented global scale.
- The global pandemic is expanding our psychology.
- We are finally slowing down.
- We are finding meaning and connections in our isolation.
- Look after yourself
Model self –care, set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise and take deep breaths to handle stress. As caring adults we can show children and young people how to look after themselves. If you are in good physical and emotional health, you are more likely to be readily available to support the children and young people that you love.
And lets not forget:
Lets take the opportunity to remember those children and young people who usually rely on their schools to provide them with a place of care and safety:
“For some parents the thought of having their children home for months is not appealing but for some children the thought of being at home with their parents for months is absolutely terrifying. As schools close, lets remember that our most vulnerable children and young people are losing their safe space and the safeguarding measures in place are no longer going to work. Lets look out for all children and report any concerns we have to email@example.com
or anonymously by calling 0808 800 5000
for imminent risk call 999.”
Fi Newood – Therapist & Adopter
by Dr Ruth M MacConville
Psychology Today blog – read here
Papadopoulos, L., quoted in ‘The anxious generation, Why our children are so stressed , The Times, 14.03.2020
Rudkin, A., quoted in ‘The anxious generation, Why our children are so stressed’ , The Times, 14.03.2020
Just for Kids: A Comic Exploring the New Coronavirus
www.houstonpublicmedia.org see here
Greenman, J. 2005, What happened to my world , Helping children cope with national disaster and catastrophe. Bright Horizons, Watertown, MA, USA,
(available from Amazon)