Trying to navigate the ins and outs of COVID-19, when scientists don’t yet completely understand the disease, is hard enough. But what are we supposed to do when children start asking questions? The short answer: Be honest and validate their feelings.
“A lot of children are missing out on being able to socialize and I see that across-the-board at all ages,” said Dr. Paul Halter. “Children are angry about what’s happened to their school year, their activities, and their sports. And it’s OK to acknowledge to a child that their feelings are valid. The anger and fear they are having—they have every right to feel that way.”
But there’s more. Because the answers adults give will determine how kids feel and whether they worry about themselves, their family, and their friends getting COVID-19, it’s important to know the best way to communicate with them.
Here are a few tips for talking with children about the coronavirus:
Remain Calm and Make Time to Chat
- Children pick up on what you say and the way you say it. And they need time to process what you’re telling them—so be sure to let them know they can come to you if they have more questions later.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Even if you are trying to calm fears, it’s good to let them know their concerns are understandable and that other people are experiencing the same emotions.
- Keep information simple and remind them that health and school officials are working hard to keep everyone healthy.
Avoid Language that Blames Others and Leads to Stigma
Avoid making assumptions about who might have COVID-19 because viruses can make anyone sick. For example, it’s inaccurate to tell children that any racial or ethnic group is more likely to have the coronavirus than another one. It’s also inaccurate to stigmatize healthcare workers or people who have had the disease and recovered from it.
When these types of stigmas are perpetuated, effected groups might experience discrimination, which isn’t healthy for anyone.
Pay Attention to What Children Watch on Television
Let’s be honest, the news is filled with frightening stories—even for adults—and we have no control over what’s going to be shown and when. Too much information can lead to anxiety, so consider reducing children’s screen time when the news is on.
Trading news-watching for a family movie, game, or other pre-recorded show will go far in reducing your children’s anxieties.
Provide Accurate Information
Give children age-appropriate information and talk to them about how some stories, especially the ones on the Internet, might be based on inaccurate information.
For example, discussions about hand washing and staying home to avoid exposure to germs are likely the easiest types of messages for younger children to comprehend. Older children and teenagers will have more complicated questions, requiring more detailed answers.
And if your child suffers from an anxiety disorder, it’s best to consult your mental health professional about the best ways to handle discussions about the pandemic. Your child’s treatment plan might also need to be modified.
Teach Children How They Can Reduce the Spread of Germs
- Remind them to stay away from people who are coughing, sneezing, or sick.
- Remind them that, when they have to cough and sneeze, to do it into a tissue or their elbow and then to throw the used tissue away.
- Get children into a handwashing habit by teaching them to sing their favorite song for 20 seconds while washing with soap and warm water. And tell them to use hand sanitizer if soap and water is not available.
Look for signs of distress
In some cases, though, the anxiety from multiple significant life changes, all at once, is too much and professional help is necessary. Consider seeking help if your child begins to withdraw from the family or show extreme emotion—possibly anger or sadness.
At Hancock Pediatrics, Dr. Halter’s office can schedule telephone and virtual appointments with our licensed social worker, Christy Harpold. (If you want to learn more, call the office at 317-467-4500.)
“Christy has been a tremendous asset for our group when it comes to addressing the mental health needs in children right now,” he said.
These tips touch on the topics that will likely come up when talking to children about the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers even more ideas for conversation with kids on its website.
No doubt it’s difficult to discuss COVID-19 with children. But these talks are important and, by calmly navigating them, you’ll be helping your kids manage their emotions and remain as positive as possible.
Hancock Pediatrics, is located at 300 E. Boyd Avenue, Suite 250, in Greenfield. Contact Dr. Halter at 317-467-4500.