"Mom, I'm scared I'm going to die." This is what my eight-year-old said to me the other morning. Maybe you have heard similar concerns from your kids? Being a parent can be hard enough, never mind in the midst of a possible Coronavirus outbreak. It is challenging to stay calm when you are worried about your family’s safety. Hopefully the talking points in this post will help you feel better prepared for when your children start asking tough questions.
Ask Questions First. Give Answers Second.
Think of yourself as a detective. Try to find out what your children know about the virus before launching into your answers.
For example, here are some questions to lead off with:
What have you heard about the Coronavirus?
Where did you hear about the Coronavirus?
What about the Coronavirus scares you?
What are your friends saying about the Coronavirus?
Do you know what a virus is?
What do you know about the flu?
As parents, it is important that you listen to what your children are saying they are afraid of. Give them 100% of your attention. Offering vague, general reassurances such as “Don’t worry, we’ll all be fine” does not acknowledge their fear and shuts down any opportunity for further conversation. If they are concerned about grandparents or others, validate this as a sign of how caring and loving they are and focus on positive messages about the medical care and support available.
Turns out my eight-year-old was most afraid that we would run out of food if the virus spread widely enough. We alleviated her fears by taking her to the grocery store and buying some extra supplies of some of her favorite foods. Sometimes it can be an easy fix to help children feel reassured, even if we don’t have all of the answers.
Give them a Frame of Reference and Follow the K-I-S-S Philosophy.
In other words: the Keep It Simple Stupid philosophy. Why make things more complicated than they need to be? Resist your temptation to over-explain. You risk overwhelming or confusing your children.
Start with what every child knows: what it’s like to have a cold. Explain that the common cold is one type of virus. The Coronavirus is another type of virus. Some viruses make your stomach hurt, some make you cough, some give you a fever.
If younger kids are having trouble understanding germs and viruses, we have some suggested shows or videos you could watch together.
“How Do People Catch a Cold?” is one episode on Netflix's “Ask the StoryBots” series.
Children thrive on routine. Recognize that their routine could be altered if schools are canceled, travel changes made, or quarantines instituted. You may want to prepare them for the possibility of these disruptions. Emphasize the positive (here’s where planning ahead on your part can pay off). Give them a frame of reference for what a quarantine might be like. Remind them that they have survived (and even enjoyed) school breaks or summer holidays in the past.
Be honest about Coronavirus when talking with kids.
Here are some talking points from parenting experts:
“Scientists and really smart people all around the world are trying to figure out how to keep people safe, healthy and to find vaccines and treatments.”
“The Coronoavirus is different than a cold because it’s new, but people are trying really hard to make sure it doesn’t spread, and to treat people who are sick.”
"Here we have lots of good hospitals filled with doctors, nurses and medicines all working to help people get better if they get sick."
"The flu is also caused by a virus and we don't have cure for that either. It is possible for people to die from the flu as well, the news just doesn't talk about that as much."
"Most people with the Corona virus only get a mild illness and fully recover within a few weeks. Children very rarely get sick and when they do it is usually just like a cold. Pets can't get sick from the Coronavirus."
Remember it is OK to say that you don’t know the answer to your child's question. A great response for when this happens is:
“That is a really great question. I am going to take some time to find the best answer that I can for your question.”
Be a Good Role Model.
Your challenge is to not transmit your own anxiety to your kids. Children are sponges and they will absorb whatever anxiety is around them. Remember that an anxious brain will always go towards imagining the worst-case scenario. You need to keep your own virus paranoia well-concealed when your children are around.
Being a good role model also goes for virus-protective behavior as well. Make sure to praise your child whenever you see them washing their hands for a long time, coughing into their sleeve or avoiding shaking someone’s hand. Make a family joke out of switching to fist bumps, elbow bumps. Why not create your own unique family sanitary greeting to avoid kissing cheeks or shaking hands?
Your job is to give them resources they can rely on, namely you, but also maybe their teacher, their school nurse, or their pediatrician. You can help increase their sense of self-efficacy by giving them concrete examples of things they can do on their own to stay healthy: washing hands, using hand sanitizer, not picking their nose. Giving them a sense of responsibility empowers them so that they are less-likely to feel vulnerable or helpless.
Another important learning opportunity that the Coronavirus has provided is how to avoid letting fear lead to discrimination. It is important to explain to your family that this virus isn’t specific to one country or group of people. You can strategize with them how to be a good bystander and speak up in the face of racism or prejudice.
Open communication is most important.
Make sure to let your children know that you want them to ask you whatever questions they might have. It is important to not try to hide information from children. Kids will only become more anxious if they worry that you are keeping secrets from them. You honesty and openness about the current situation, even if it seems frightening, will help ease your children's worries.
Encourage your children to be intelligent news consumers. Use the Coronavirus as an opportunity to teach kids that not everything they hear or see is fact. Remind them that news is meant to grab their attention and to be sensational. Many experts recommend waiting until at least age 7 to let children watch or listen to the news. In the words of the vice-president of Common Sense Media, Jill Murphy:” Kids that young (younger than 7) have a hard time differentiating between what’s real and what’s fake, what’s near and what’s far, what’s possible and what’s highly improbable.”
As parents, we know what a scary and uncertain time this is. Hopefully this post can offer you some support and guidance for keeping your family safe and calm. Please share any tips you have for talking with children about difficult or scary subjects. We are all in this together!
This post was adapted from the New York Times Parenting article, “How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus?” Accessed online 3/3/2020.