Talking to your Child About Covid-19

Parents, family members, College staff and other trusted adults can all play an important role in helping children make sense of what they hear/see in a way that is honest, age-appropriate, accurate and minimises fear.

Below are some simple tips on how to support and talk to your child about the Coronavirus.

Maintain a Sense of Calm and Reassurance

Just like adults, children will start to feel a little wobbly when there is a sense of uncertainty; when things are out of their control, and/or when things are unpredictable. In the absence of factual information, children (and adults) have a tendency to ‘fill in the gaps’ and will often imagine situations that are far worse than the reality. At times like this, it can be easy to let fear take over.

As parents, it is so important that we manage our own fear response to these challenging times because children will take their cues from us. As parents, we need to be the calm and confident captain of the ship (communicated both verbally and non-verbally) so that our children know that the adults in their lives are working to address this issue and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. This means talking with your child in an open, honest, reassuring and age-appropriate way.

Focus on Facts (in an age-appropriate way)

One way to provide our children with a sense of certainty and control in these uncertain times is by sticking to the facts. There is a high probability that your child has been exposed to information about the coronavirus through either the media, overhearing adult conversations or playground talk. To start this discussion, ask them what they already know so that you can clarify any misunderstanding. You could simply ask “Hey, what have you heard about the coronavirus? Is there anything you are not sure about or worried about?”. Once you ask this question, be sure to take the time to actively listen to what they have to say.

Do your best to validate their concerns – hear them out, let them express their thoughts/feelings to you, reassure them know that it is normal to worry when uncertain or challenging situations arise BUT then explain the facts in a way that is age-appropriate. Ultimately as a result of this conversation, you want your child to feel the 4 S’s – Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure. Let your child know – “I am here for you, I will listen and we will get through this together”. Parents can communicate this by listening, helping their child to name or label their emotion (you’ve got to ‘name it to tame it’), asking curious questions, and by validating what they are experiencing. When children feel validated, the emotional centres of the brain become calm and they are more likely to feel a sense of safety and security. Try to avoid a ‘dismiss and deny’ approach.

For small children keep the information simple and straight forward. You may like to make use of ‘social stories’ (see the links at the end of this article). For older children, they may ask questions that you can’t answer (let’s face it, the information available is changing on a daily basis and the future is unknown!). It is okay to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question but let me (or us) see if we can find out”. Empathise how distressing it is not knowing the outcome or impact of a situation. By choosing responsible sources of information you will be role modelling a non-alarmist approach. Trustworthy sources might include –

One Simple Example of How you Might Explain What is Happening is:

“What we know so far is that the Coronavirus is similar to a cold, so our approach to prevention is the same; frequent hand washing with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds (especially after using the bathroom and playing outside and before eating), keeping your hands away from your face as much as possible, and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into their elbow instead of their hands. It’s anticipated that only a small percentage of people would require hospitalisation and the news highlights those people. The majority will be okay.”

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Provide opportunities to allow your child to re-open the conversation. Let your child know that they can come to you with any questions or concerns they might have. Remember to thank them for coming to you – this shows your child that you are capable of ‘sitting with’ their fears (meaning they are less likely to turn to peers or the internet for the answers). During times of uncertainty, children will be drawn to their attachment figures – where possible, provide lots of opportunities to connect (e.g. with younger children this might include reading stories, playing together, drawing). For those young people who are really curious or anxious about the coronavirus, it could be seen as an opportunity to learn together about our bodies, viruses and how to minimise risk etc without becoming obsessive about it. We can be playful about this too – there are lots of videos on YouTube where people have come up with creative alternative ways to handshake (e.g. foot or elbow tapping, air handshakes).

Older children may want to discuss the ‘what if’ scenarios – if so, allow them to voice these concerns and then communicate to your child that the adults in their life will problem-solve their way through this as best as they can. For example, a lot of adolescents are not necessarily worried about contracting the virus but rather they are fearful about the financial impact this will have on their family.

Control During Uncertainty

Another way to establish a sense of security and control is to encourage children to focus on practical strategies (such as discussing the importance of handwashing) to help prevent catching or passing on the virus. Kids will feel empowered when they know what they should be doing. Take the time to emphasise the ways in which you as a family or community can keep each other safe and look after one another. Talk as a family about how you can make a contribution – involve them as much as possible in the planning and preparation. Empower your child by giving them small age-appropriate tasks such as wiping down doorknobs in the home, writing thank you cards to healthcare workers or ‘miss you’ cards for loved ones. If your children are worried about their relatives, where possible allow them to call or video chat. Come together as a family to create a list of enjoyable things to do if you become housebound. It can also be helpful to focus on things that are working well or that we are grateful for – for example, we have an excellent healthcare system.

Refuge in Routine

Humans are hardwired to dislike uncertainty and it tends to trigger uncomfortable feelings like worry or anxiety. Routine can act as the anchor for your family. Sticking to a routine or familiar rhythm will allow you and your family to feel an element of security and predictability in the midst of uncertainty. Where possible try to maintain your usual routine – homework, mealtimes, bedtime, brushing teeth, chores etc.

Minimise Media Exposure

News of the Coronavirus seems to be everywhere from the front page of newspapers and Facebook to the playground at school – which means it can be hard to mentally switch off. Naturally, it is tempting to keep the news on in the background but remember that the media needs sensational headlines to ensure that people will keep watching. The news is designed for adults and is not developmentally appropriate for children. Look for ways to stay updated without exposing your children to the onslaught of alarming headlines. Consume the news with a critical eye, turn to trusted sources and then reassure your child that you will pass on the information that is appropriate. Try to be with your child when they are watching, listening or reading the news so you can address any questions or concerns they might have.
Parent self-care

It is incredibly important that as the parent we are taking stock of our own stress response during these times of uncertainty. The adults in the system set the emotional tone for our children. Every time we see news, be mindful that it is likely to set off the ‘fight or flight’ response. If you notice your own fear response is continually dialled up, then this is telling you that you need to do something about it.

If you notice you (or your child) are becoming preoccupied with the news, consider setting reasonable limits by:

  • avoiding checking the news first thing in the morning or before bed
  • set a limit on how many times a day you will check updates
  • turn off notifications on your apps to limit social media use
  • start your day by practising mindfulness, exercising, reading or connecting with your loved ones rather than checking social media.

Parents are human too, so it is okay to share your feelings with your family, but it is also our job as parents to manage those thoughts and feelings. When we show our children what it looks like to maintain steadiness in the face of the unexpected then we role model resilience that will serve them well throughout their lives. Parents need a trusted space to freely give voice to their concerns (many parents report fears around finances) with other adults – without your children around.

Humans are remarkably resilient when we allow ourselves to give voice to our concerns, get support when we need it, and when we focus on things that are within our control. However, if you are concerned about your child’s mental health or your own mental health then it is important to speak with a trusted GP or mental health professional. If you would like to access the College Counselling Service for your son, please contact your Pastoral Leader / Head of House.