How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus: 12 Tips and Free Resources
One afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, my seven-year-old crumpled to the floor in our living room and started to whimper.
It was a beautiful spring day, a friend from two doors down was out in her front yard, and I had told him, “I’m sorry, honey. We just can’t play with friends right now.” At first, I thought he was relapsing into a toddler temper tantrum, but this wasn’t the same.
I sat down and pulled him into my lap, and he cried into my shoulder, “I want this to be over! I just want corona to go away. I want to play with my friends. I just want to talk to my friends. I hate this!”
I was stunned.
We’d talked about the situation in passing. He’d had a question or two here and there, which we answered appropriately and honestly. But overall, I’d assumed it wasn’t really on his radar.
After all, I have worked from home for the past six years, and he’s always been homeschooled. My husband’s company never closed, so—while he has been home early more often—he never stopped going to work in the mornings. I assumed my son’s life had hardly changed, and he wasn’t really feeling the burden of the COVID-19 epidemic.
But I was wrong. Missing weekend church services, errands with mom, monthly field trips, and playing with friends doesn’t seem like a big deal to the adults—with so many other things to do—but it dramatically shifted the only world he’s ever known. And we’d never really talked about it.
So we talked about it. And now we talk about it every few days. And because I’m a super type-A personality, I’ve read a lot, and talked to some professionals, about how to talk about it.
Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned about how to talk to kids (of all ages) about the coronavirus epidemic.
1. Put yourself in your child’s shoes.
You know that the changes to your kids’ lives are relatively minor, but they don’t have that same perspective. Those small schedule changes might feel like really big adjustments to them.
Before you even open the conversation, take a minute to recall everything in your kid’s life that has changed.
The main thing I try to remember during the health crisis is that the kids are going through the same thing. Their world has changed dramatically too. They are facing unknowns too. Responding with patience and understanding isn't always easy, but that is the goal. - Christa Dame, Licensed Professional Counselor, Bridge Light Counseling
2. Ask what they know, or think, about coronavirus.
Before you speak, listen. This does two things:
First, it draws a starting line for you. Maybe your kid thinks it’s no big deal. Maybe she thinks the sky is falling. Maybe she hasn’t really heard or thought much about it. Maybe all her friends on Facebook are convinced the whole thing is a government conspiracy.
Those are all very different conversations. Before you start talking from your perspective, understand where your child is at. If you launch into trying to calm fears that just don’t exist, for example, your best efforts might have the opposite effect.
Second, it gives your child a therapeutic opportunity to vent or explore his emotions on the topic.
“When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” - Mr. Rogers
As long as your child has something to say about it, listen.
3. Don’t dismiss their emotions.
… even if you don’t share or agree with them.
"Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it." - Mr. Rogers
Dismissing a child’s emotions doesn’t get rid of the emotion, it just makes him less likely to share his emotions with you in the future. Just because you may not be worried, doesn’t make your child’s fear less valid.
4. Keep calm.
Kids see through you, whether they know they’re doing it or not. More than what you say, kids will remember and internalize how you say it. You set the tone.
If you are suffering from anxiety or depression over the coronavirus situation, get yourself sorted out first. If you find that it’s an ongoing process, and you really can’t control your tone of voice and body language when you talk about the topic, ask a spouse or other close family member to talk to your kids instead.
Self-care is ... a big thing. Whether you have lots of time on your hands or you have more responsibilities than ever, your schedule and lifestyle have changed. This is taxing on the body as well as your emotions. Try to remember you are a better mom when you've taken care of yourself. - Dame
5. Reassure them.
Don’t lie or exaggerate (that’s next), but reassure them of whatever you can: They’re safe. Your family is safe. Very smart people are working really hard to make it go away.
No matter what your situation or living conditions, you can truthfully tell them that the disease is usually not severe in children. Even if they do catch it, they will (most likely) be fine.
6. Be honest and provide age-appropriate information.
You don’t have to tell them everything, but what you do tell them should be the truth. There’s no chart or table for which facts to share with which age groups, but you know your kids.
Talking to our kids about big things is always hard. It’s made a whole lot harder when there are so many question marks still about COVID-19, and what we believe is true one week is different the next week. But that doesn’t mean we should not have the conversations.
We can take initiative, tell our kids what we know right now, talk about what might change, and assure them that there are grownups working really hard night and day to learn about the germs and make decisions that are best for everyone. - Kelly Raudenbush, Family Therapist & Codirector, The Sparrow Fund
Toddlers might just need to know that there’s a new germ, and it’s making people sick, so everyone is being very careful while the doctors and nurses kill all the bad germs.
Middle school kids may have heard more from friends, so they might need more details. Teenagers need you to treat them like young adults.
Being honest about the situation requires two more things:
7. Avoid blame and stigma.
There are lots of theories and political agendas attached to the coronavirus outbreak, but kids don’t need those ideas. Pining blame for something this big on a group of people only leads to stigma.
As the mother of an ethnically Chinese kid, I assure you that the us-vs.-them mentality created by blame is not reserved for adults. So many families in the adoption community have had to help their kids process racially charged bullying, because other kids heard adults blaming China or the Chinese.
Blame on a faraway “other” feels like an easy answer, but it really just compounds the load that all of our children have to bear in this season.
8. Set expectations, especially for special occasions.
A lot of kids are struggling with upset proms, graduations, birthdays, summer vacations, and more. There’s nothing you can do about those changes, but you can prepare your kids for them by setting expectations ahead of time.
Try to set expectations that are both realistic and reassuring. I can't promise that we will have a big party for my son's summer birthday, but I can promise that it is going to be really special, that he will have some kind of party, and that he will get presents. - Dame
8. Teach them how to respond to others.
This is raising kind humans! We all need a little extra empathy and understanding right now, so—once you think your kids have a good handle on the situation—be intentional about teaching them how to respond to others.
9. Monitor what they see and hear.
With smaller children, especially, be mindful of what they see and hear—even in passing or in the background. Most parents have had “that moment” when a small child parrots something we didn’t think they really heard.
Watch and discuss the news after bedtime, and if it does come up while kids are around—include them. Ask if they understand and, if not, calmly and honestly explain the update in language they understand.
10. Give them a sense of control.
No one likes feeling out of control, and kids are no different. If your kids are feeling anxious or nervous about the situation, talking about what you can do, and are doing, to stay safe will help them feel like they have at least a little bit of control.
- Proper hand washing
- Coughing in their elbow
- Adequate sleep
- Good nutrition
- Avoiding large crowds or gatherings in enclosed spaces
Explain how these practices help to keep your family, and everyone around you, safe.
As parents, we may think our job is to be strong and "put together" for our kids. But, what we know about development actually says that it’s more positively impactful to the way our child sees the world, and how they fit in it, to show our kids that we’re “in this together” rather than that we’re “put together.” When our kids experience togetherness—that is when they can feel safe. - Raudenbush
11. Point out the silver linings.
Looking for the bright side is a good practice to instill in children from a young age anyway, and this is a really good opportunity to work on that. Every time you check in with your child about the COVID-19 situation, end the conversation by talking about the good that has come from this weird situation.
Maybe you’ve gotten more time together as a family. Maybe you’ve learned new things together. Maybe your child really likes doing school online, or they’ve had time to work on other projects, or you’ve started some new family traditions.
It might be hard, at first, so you may want to come prepared to name a few silver linings yourself. It will get easier.
12. Prep them for changes at school.
If your kids are going back to school in the fall, there will be changes. Go over the new rules and guidelines with them—a few times, if they’re younger or you think they need to really get it.
Set aside some time to really talk about the changes. Ask your kids how they feel about the new rules, if there’s anything that doesn’t make sense or that they disagree with, why they think those rules might be important, etc. Let them disagree, dialogue, and process so they’re really prepared when it’s time to go back.
Here are a few freebies and videos that might help too:
Helping kids deal with COVID-19
One of the most important considerations for parents right now is to simply remember that your kids, of any age, are dealing with a crisis right now too. They might seem unaffected, but—unless they’re toddlers or younger—don’t assume it’s not on their radar.
Start by taking a minute to remember everything in their world that has changed, and then ask what they think about what is going on. After that initial conversation, be sure to check in on a regular basis.