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The outbreak of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has created a lot of anxiety and uncertainty for all of us, including children and teens. During stressful times, no matter what their age, children want to know three basic things:
As parents and caregivers, we need to talk with our kids about COVID-19 to address these concerns. Below are seven tips on how to engage with kids of all ages to help them maintain emotional stability during the crisis, followed by guidance on how to tailor conversations for kids at of different ages.
1. Control Your Own Anxiety
Many of us are worried about the current situation and living with uncertainty isn’t easy. Yet, anxiety is “contagious.” Your kids will know that you are nervous even if you try to hide it. So how can you keep your cool, despite your own worries? Here are some things that may help:
2. Approach Your Kids and Ask What They Know
Most children will have heard about COVID-19, particularly school-age kids and adolescents. They may have read things online, seen something on TV, or heard friends or teachers talk about the illness. Others may have overheard you talking about it. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so don’t assume that they know specifics about the situation or that the information they have is correct. Ask open ended questions:
Once you know what information they have and what they’re concerned about, then you can help to fill in any necessary gaps.
3. Validate Their Feelings and Concerns
Kids may have all sorts of reactions to the COVID-19. Some may be realistic, while others exaggerated. For example, if grandma is in a nursing home, they may have heard that older adults get sicker than healthier, younger individuals. You need to be able to acknowledge this valid concern, but can reassure them that grandma has the best medical care to manage the illness. Alternately, a child may be terrified that animals will get the virus such as a beloved pet. Again, take these feeling seriously, but then reassure them that dogs and cats don’t get the virus, so there is no need to worry about this.
4. Be Available for Questions and Provide New Information
This outbreak is likely to last a long time, so one conversation won’t be enough. At first, your child’s emotional reactions will outweigh their thoughts and concerns. As the outbreak continues and your kids get new information, they will need to talk again. Let them know they can come to you at any time with questions or worries. It’s also a good idea to have regular check ins, as they may not approach you with their fears.
When you update your kids with new information, don’t assume that they fully understand everything you say. Ask them to explain things back to you in their own language. This is an excellent way to know if your kids understood what you meant.
5. Empower Them by Modeling Behavior
An important part of prevention is hand washing, coughing or sneezing into your sleeves, wiping your nose with tissue then discarding it, trying to keep your hands away from your face, not shaking hands or making physical contact with others, and wiping surfaces with material that is at least 60% alcohol.
Be sure to demonstrate these behaviors first, so your kids can have a good model. It’s a great idea for you to wash your hands with young children singing “Happy Birthday” twice (about 20 seconds) so they know what to do on their own. Wiping surfaces as a family, after dinner, helps everyone feel part of the prevention effort. For older kids and teens, give alternatives to high fives or fist bumps, like elbow bumping, bowing, or using Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute.
When you see your kids practicing good hygiene praise them for it! Reinforce that they are not only taking care of themselves, but also helping to prevent the spread of germs to others.
6. Provide Reassurance
Your kids may worry about how you’re going to get through this. Remind them of other situations in which they felt helpless and scared. Kids love family stories, and these narratives carry a lot of emotional weight. Try something like: “Remember that hurricane when a tree fell on the apartment?” or “Remember when the pipes burst in the house and we were flooded?” Remind them that you have been through challenging times before, and though everyone was distressed, everyone also worked together and got through it. Reliving these kinds of narrative helps the whole family to build resilience and hope.
7. Don’t Blame Others
In stressful times, when we feel helpless, there’s a tendency to blame someone or become more fearful, even when there is no evidence to support these reactions. This can create social stigma and be harmful towards certain groups of people – in the case of COVID-19, particularly people of Asian descent, and people who have recently traveled. The last thing we want our kids to do when frightening events happen is to cast blame on others, either intentionally or without meaning to.
When you ask your kids what they know about the virus, listen for anything that discriminates against a group of people, and address it in your conversation. And make sure not to reinforce negative stereotypes in your own actions and conversations.
When you talk to your child or teen, it’s important to use words, phrases, and examples that are developmentally appropriate. Here are tips for helping preschool kids, school-age kids, and teens and young adults.
Preschool Kids (Ages 2- 6):
Preschool kids are more in tune to and affected by parental emotions than older kids. For them, especially, be sure to stay calm around them. In addition:
School-age Children (Ages 7-12):
Adolescents and Young Adults (Ages 13 – 18+):
No one knows at this point how serious the impact of COVID-19 will be. Living with uncertainty is not easy. However, we can help each other become more resilient, emotionally stable, and as physically protected as possible through a carefully planned means of engaging with our kids in this time of crisis.