Talking with kids about the coronavirusWritten by Joannie DeBrito
This article is part of our series providing help for families during COVID-19. Find more related articles and resources here.
We’ve all heard healthcare providers tell us how to keep the coronavirus at bay. Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face. If you have any symptoms of the virus, consult a doctor and stay away from other people. These and other suggestions are helpful for managing the physical aspects of what has now been declared a pandemic. As a parent, how can you help your kids cope with the fear and worry that the statistics and predictions on the nightly news might stir up? Here are some tips for talking to kids about the coronavirus.
Keep calm and communicate
First, remain calm. Children tend to model their parents’ emotions and if you communicate in a calm manner, that will likely help reduce your kids’ fear. If you, like many adults, are someone who struggles with anxiety, talk about that with another adult or a counsellor, not with your children. It’s ok to tell kids that it’s normal to feel a little fear but you don’t want to transfer your anxiety to them. Also, remember that many kids will be completely unaware of the coronavirus outbreak because they’re so young and don’t have older siblings. Talk to them only if they bring up the subject or you know that they’ve been exposed to information and are confused or scared. This is a case where “ignorance is bliss.”
Assure them that they’re safe and that you know what to do if someone in your family becomes ill. List three to five steps that you’ll take if someone in your family begins to show symptoms of the virus. Remember that children of all ages may become fearful or overly worried, so be sure to have age-appropriate discussions with each of your children. Sometimes, adolescents and teenagers can be more fearful and worried than younger children.
Stick to the facts
Discuss factual information related to your local community. Whenever there is an unexpected problem that impacts a lot of people, there is a lot of misinformation floating around. Look for information from the Public Health Agency of Canada and provincial or national healthcare resources that have reputations for providing evidence-based and accurate information. When talking with your kids about coronavirus, talk openly about the risks and remedies that exist where you live. Avoid giving a lot of information about national and global concerns.
Explain that you’re trying to be cautious and wise, not acting out of fear. This situation offers a great opportunity for you to explain that it’s always best to be proactive rather than reactive. Your actions now are intended to prevent future problems, not necessarily to cope with current problems. If your family has successfully weathered a serious weather event, a flu outbreak, or another unexpected event in the past, remind your children that you were able to do that because you were well prepared.
Stick to your established routines and schedules as much as possible. Change is hard for many kids. The more you can minimize changes, the better. Children tend to feel more secure when they know what is coming in their daily schedules.
Use this time for family fun
If you decide to isolate as a family, have fun spending time together. Emphasize the opportunity to slow down, hang out, and enjoy each other’s company. Remember, you’re taking steps to prevent getting the virus, not hiding in fear. Also, encourage your kids to engage in physical activities and creative experiences, both known to be helpful for easing anxiety.
Resist the urge to check the news every five minutes. So much of what you read and hear in the news one day will be found to be untrue a day later. Pick a half-hour period each day to stay informed and report only what is age-appropriate to your children.
God is still in control
Pray with your children. Emphasize that you’re trusting God for His guidance. If your kids are old enough to read and understand scripture, read and discuss Psalms 91:1-3 (ICB) together:
Those who go to God Most High for safety
will be protected by God All-Powerful.
I will say to the Lord, “You are my place of safety and protection.
You are my God, and I trust you.”
God will save you from hidden traps
and from deadly diseases.
Talking with your kids about coronavirus will help them to cope with the fear and anxiety that news of such a disease can bring. Continue to keep your family prepared. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Trust that no matter what happens, God is in control.
Tips for using age-appropriate language
As kids develop, they go from understanding simple, concrete concepts to more abstract concepts. That means that the younger kids are, the fewer and simpler words you use to explain something to them. As kids get older, you can use more metaphors, analogies and real-life examples to help them understand. You might want to engage preteens and teens in discussions that allow them to come up with some of their own ideas for analyzing and managing daily concerns. Or teach them how to discern facts from opinions.
Past, present & future
Provide young children with information that relates to the here and now. You can talk more about the past and present with kids who are in elementary school and move toward talking about the past, present and future with preteens. Teenagers are able to understand connections and associations between past, present and future events.
Give directions from few, simple steps to many, more complex steps, depending on age. For example, give a five-year-old up to three very simple steps, a 10-year-old up to six steps that may offer some choices for each step and teens up to ten steps that require some personal decision making.
Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT, is the director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in the U.S. She draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and registered mental health professional.
© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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