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How to Talk With Kids About Covid-19

Written By: Becca Mitsos, CCLS

April 20, 2020







This pandemic can be a scary topic to discuss when there is so much unknown. As parents and caregivers, you are under even more pressure than normal to cope “the right way”. But, there is no “right way” to cope, so I've got some tips and tricks for you and your family! Protecting your children is most important to you, and sometimes it can feel shielding them is the best way to keep them from being scared. Not talking about what is going on in the world can cause more anxiety and stress in your child. Children are hearing more and know more than a lot of us give them credit for. It is important to be honest with children at any age and it is possible to teach them in a supportive way that isn’t overwhelming.

First, I encourage you to reflect on how the current pandemic is affecting your stress level, your emotions, and your day-to-day life. The more aware you are of your own state of being, the better equipped you will be to guide your child through the toughest of times.

Practice honest communication. The more they know about what is going on around them, the better off they’ll be at implementing effective coping mechanisms. Making the time to talk shows them they can come to you when they have questions. It is normal for younger children to ask the same question repeatedly; it is one of the easiest ways for them to actively obtain reassurance.

Ask them what they know. This will allow you the opportunity to learn what they know and clarify any misconceptions they may have. Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma. Viruses can make anyone sick, no matter where they come from, what color their skin is or what they believe. Be clear in correcting incorrect assumptions.

Focus on their safety. It is empowering to teach your child how to keep themselves and your family safe. Explaining that the new rules like social distancing are to keep germs from spreading, not because they are in trouble or are being punished. You can also reassure them something like this won’t last forever, but it is very important right now. Try to use a calm, reassuring voice.

Stick with the facts. Pick one trusted news source like the CDC or Illinois Department of Public Health’s websites. Inform yourself so that you are better equipped to honestly answer your children’s questions. Also, be mindful of your use of screen time. Too much information on one topic can have a serious impact on mental health.

Take their lead. Try to only answer the question your child has asked. It is natural for adults to instinctively provide additional information, but this isn’t always true for kids. Some will want to spend time talking, but others may not. That is all normal.

Be transparent if you don’t know the answer. Children can catch you off guard with questions. It is not only okay to say, “I don’t know,” but is also an opportunity for your child to build trust and learn ways to cope with feelings of uncertainty. Use the question as a chance to find the answer together. As always, we encourage you use caution when searching the internet if your child can see the screen.

Give them space to share their fears. It is natural for kids to worry. Validate what they’re feeling with, “I understand why that’s worrying you,” instead of ‘Don’t worry”. Thank them for sharing their feelings with you, and remind them they can always come to you to talk about what is scaring them. Emotions are like trains moving through a tunnel-you must go through it to get to the other side. Being present with your child as they move through their feelings is one of the most powerful ways to help them feel safe and supported.

Remind them that it is normal to feel stressed. Everyone does. Acknowledging that these are feelings everyone has and that stressful times will pass can help children learn resilience. In a quiet moment, have them think about what is helpful to them when they feel scared or nervous and have them make a list or even built a “toolbox” they can turn to when those feelings come up. This is an excellent way to teach kids how to cope.

Provide opportunities for your child to feel in control. Teaching them about proper hand washing, covering their mouth when they cough and sneeze, and getting lots of rest are great things they can do every day to keep themselves and your families healthy. Be a good role model for them and let them see you practicing these things, too!

Set boundaries and be firm about what is okay and what is not okay. Reminding them that there are safe ways to express sadness, fear, frustration and anger and that talking about it with a trusted caregiver can help. Reactions like physical aggression that causes things to break or other people to get hurt are not acceptable. The rules for respect, consideration and kindness don’t change just because we’re in a stressful time. These two things contribute greatly to continued growth and development.

Connect with family outside of your house. Schedule phone calls or video calls with family and friends. Encourage your children to write letters, make signs for your windows, or think of fun things to do through a phone or video call. Take the time to make lists of things to do for when you get bored…because boredom will come. It will be easier to get creative and stay busy if you’ve got a running list of games to play and activities to do.

Stick to a routine. Practicing the routine things your child is used to can help maintain a sense of safety and control. These can include waking up and getting dressed, brushing teeth, making the bed and having breakfast on their regular schedule. Setting times for eating, playing and learning can also help the days at home get into a rhythm that works for your family. Look for the helpers. Highlight things in the media that demonstrate community members supporting each other with acts of kindness and generosity. It can be a huge comfort to know that there are compassionate people taking action!

Let them be a kid—and do it with them! Everyone benefits from play, and kids use play as a main way to express themselves. Children can often react to major change more “normally” than adults – and that’s okay. A child’s natural inclination is to play through what they’re experiencing.

Be sure to keep an ongoing conversation with your child about what s/he is thinking, feeling, and hearing. I hope that these tips are helpful as you and your family continue to navigate the new normal.

Adapted from luriechildrens.org

Becca Mitsos, CCLS

Becca is a child life specialist who has worked at Lurie Children's Hospital in ambulatory and surgerical care for the past five years. She also serves on Lurie's ethics board as one of the psychosocial representatives. She's currently pursuing a certificate in pediatric bioethics. In her free time, she likes to run, take pictures, read and eat sushi.

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