Discussing coronavirus with your children

Kathy Carter


Whilst we have all run the gamut of emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic, for those of us who are parents, it can be a juggling act between keeping the children informed when they ask questions, not causing anxiety, and also allowing them to be kids. Remember, they may look back at this period with great fondness – it will probably be the year they spent more quality time with their family. Here, we look at ways to win at life as a parent in lockdown with children, and ‘model’ a calm, kind approach to the situation we find ourselves in.

Don’t be afraid to discuss the C-word

When the pandemic elevated in our respective countries, many of us felt in a state of denial, initially – there was a numbness, and perhaps a feeling it was something that wouldn’t affect us so badly as it had affected others. Lots of people also seemingly found themselves becoming very angry at their leaders and decision-makers, and many people are still experiencing these emotions. These are strong feelings to be dealing with, and absolutely typical of traumatic scenarios – however, they’re not conducive to a happy family life with children.

Ideally, we should not be afraid to discuss the coronavirus with younger family members. However, we need to be the grown-ups here, answering questions and making sure the emotions we show and the words we use around children serve to reassure the child. E.g, they may worry about family members becoming ill or passing away based on something they heard on the radio; not explaining something (or not discussing it at all) can actually make kids worry more. A calm discussion using fact-based information, reassuring the child as best we can, is the way forward; this ‘modelling’ shows the children how best to handle difficult feelings.

Be honest

Yes, honesty is key. Our children may have heard things on the news or may have heard others discussing the pandemic. Chances are, what they’ve heard is out of context. Generally speaking, if a child has asked a question, parents should answer it in some shape or form. We can, for example, use developmentally appropriate language; something simple like: ‘It’s a naughty germ that can make people feel sick’ could be enough for very young children.

It’s a good idea to invite the child to tell us anything they may have heard about the coronavirus, and discuss how they feel about what they‘ve heard. We can generally take cues from our children in terms of the level of content to discuss, and also share honestly how we are feeling; again in a developmentally appropriate way.

Young children under the age of seven are perhaps the ones most likely to worry about family members passing away, as their logic isn’t as well developed as older kids – hence, we can supply fact-based information about how lots of people are working hard to make us all safe and well, and that if we keep following the health advice (e.g. washing hands and limiting social contact), we can help keep our relatives healthy. The reassurance that the current situation won’t be forever is also useful to reiterate; use fact-based resources to help prepare you – e.g. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The World Health Organization (WHO).

Deal with your own anxiety out of eyesight and earshot of the kids

When you’re feeling sad or panicked isn’t the time to talk to your kids about what’s happening in the world. By all means, watch the news and read about the latest COVID-19 occurrences, but try to separate this from time with the children. Even if the child is not actively watching the TV or listening to a radio broadcast, it’s best to turn these off, if the child is within earshot.

It’s also a good idea to look after our own mental health, for example not relying on self-medication like alcohol to help us deal with the current challenge or any difficult personal circumstances. Children will definitely pick up on increased coping mechanisms, and this isn’t good behaviour to mirror to them. Of course, it’s ok to feel sad - but try to keep everything calm and developmentally-appropriate, in order not to worry the child.

Focus on the positives

According to the WHO, catching coronavirus does not mean you will have it for life, and most patients recover with supportive care. This is a simple message that many children may not have heard. Focus on what you’re doing as a family to stay safe and well, and empower them to look after their own health and hygiene.

Find child-suitable news reports and websites to watch with them – look for good news stories (such as the Good News Network). Find stats and figures about recovery rates, if they ask about people becoming poorly, and explain how kindness is the new pandemic. You could create educational projects about kindness, and come up with new ways to help others (E.g. in the UK, families are designing rainbow pictures with the hashtag #RainbowsForNightingale for a new NHS field hospital.) There are environmental positives to be found and discussed, too – for example, in New Delhi, which has some of the most polluted air in the world, airborne particulates plunged by 71% in just one week.

An obvious positive side effect of the pandemic is the increased family time – use this period to focus on developing positive connections with family, both in your household and also virtually with relatives, and help make affirming memories with your children, so that they remember the time with affection.

Maintain a routine

Staying rooted in routines and predictability is going to be helpful. Structured days with regular mealtimes and bedtimes are usually an essential part of keeping kids happy and healthy. If you’re home-educating, it’s a good idea to keep the regime up, even if there are periods that are designated school holidays. Hopefully, if you have your children at home, you will have fostered an interest in learning that means school-age children are enjoying their new family-based education and can focus their learning based on what interests them – whether it’s characters from a TV show, or something fascinating from the fields of science and nature.

If the child wasn’t fastidious about hygiene before, now’s also a good time to establish improved procedures such as increased, robust hand-washing, for example after blowing their nose or coughing, as well as before eating food. A nice idea to consolidate all of the above is to create a journal or scrapbook with the child, logging your activities and noting how they’re feeling – this helps to develop mindfulness and self-care.

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