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How to Talk to Kids About the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Many adults are feeling anxious about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and managing those feelings is a real challenge. That challenge is more difficult for parents, who must also support their children through these extraordinary times. Disrupted routines, social distancing, and ever-gloomier media reports add to the strain, particularly for little ones.

It can be difficult to know what to say and how much detail to share. Finding the right balance isn’t an exact science. A lot depends on your child’s age, temperament, interest, and level of maturity. These talking points are designed to get the conversation started.

The Importance of Timing

First things first: choose your timing wisely. Your child is sure to pick up on your tone and body language, so pick a time to talk when you are calm and relaxed. The primary goal of the conversation is to reassure your children that their world—though somewhat different—is safe and secure.

Talking to Pre-Schoolers

In some ways, conversations with the smallest members of your family may be the easiest to manage. If they haven’t heard much about world events, you can explain the changes to their daily routine in very simple terms.

  • There are a lot of germs going around, so we are going to stay home from daycare/preschool for a while.
  • We are doing extra handwashing so we stay healthy.
  • We can’t visit with friends today, but we can draw a special picture and email or mail it to them.
  • We have some fun activities to do at home during this special time when we are all together.

If your preschooler sees or overhears something frightening, don’t focus too much on events outside your home. Instead, center your conversation around your family.

  • Some folks are feeling worried because of the germs.
  • Sometimes, people who are worried about getting sick wear masks and gloves to keep germs away.
  • People who get sick are being taken care of by doctors.
  • We have everything we need to stay safe at home.
  • We are going to take care of each other and enjoy some special time together.

Talking to Elementary-Aged Children

Talking about coronavirus/COVID-19 with elementary-aged kids is a bit trickier. Start by gauging how much they have heard from friends and how worried they are. From there, you have a solid understanding of what misinformation must be corrected during your conversation.

Next, share the basics. You can skip in-depth or overly detailed discussion unless your child has questions, as many will be reassured by and satisfied with the following points:

  • When people say coronavirus and COVID-19, they are talking about the same illness.
  • COVID-19 is the name for a new virus that was discovered last year. It stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.”
  • Since it was just discovered, scientists and doctors are still learning about it and how best to treat it.
  • It has made a lot of people sick, but almost all of them felt better after a week or two.
  • Doctors think most people, especially kids, will be okay, even if they do get COVID-19.
  • Some of the people who have COVID-19 get very sick, and they have to go to the hospital.
  • There may be some changes in our routine—school, sports, visiting friends—but we will find fun things to do at home, and we can still talk to friends and family on the phone and via video chat.

Talking to Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers

As kids get to middle school, independent internet use is more prevalent, and many children in this age group are involved in social media. By high school, nearly all children have some exposure to these platforms.

In addition to the talking points you would use with elementary-aged children, spend some time discussing what your kids are seeing online. In many cases, their anxiety stems from rumor and sensational news sources versus reputable reporting. Begin by sharing tips for choosing reliable, fact-based news sources, and set the record straight if your kids are quoting inaccurate “facts.”

How to Address Specific Concerns with Kids

Will there be enough medical resources to meet patients’ needs?

This is a tough one, because it is based in fact. However, you can emphasize that the entire country is focused on making sure everyone who needs medical care can get it.

Explain the concept of “flattening the curve” to conserve medical resources, and emphasize the actions you can take as a family to stay healthy and ensure we are successful in flattening the curve. Handwashing, cleaning frequently touched surfaces, and social distancing are key to this effort.

The Washington Post published a clear, easy to understand explanation of the importance of social distancing, which you can use to illustrate the concept in a fun, interactive way.

Are there enough COVID-19 tests available?

While this has been an issue, scientists and researchers are hard at work on solutions. Major pharmacy chains are setting up drive-thru testing centers, and an at-home kit will be available as soon as March 23. Soon, anyone who needs a test can get one easily.

Will this pandemic cause money problems for our family?

The economic news has been a bit alarming, and many families are experiencing a loss of income as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Money worries can be very stressful for children, so you might want to touch on this topic even if your child doesn’t bring it up.

If you have a financial strategy in place already, let them know—though you may keep the detailed figures to yourself. If not, spend some time talking about the fact that while money might be a little tight, our leaders are hard at work on finding ways to make sure families have everything they need to stay safe and healthy. More importantly, you will always ensure your family has the basics.

You don’t have to cover every single point in one conversation. It’s okay to check in with your children periodically to see if they have questions or concerns. The most important thing is to establish that you are available to talk anytime, anywhere, and that you want them to come to you with anything that worries them so you can work through it together.

The Importance of Routine

If your child’s school is closed, don’t be tempted to treat the days like an endless vacation. Routine is an important method of building feelings of security. Design a new at-home learning schedule that works for your family, with time set aside for movement and play as well as reading, writing, science, art, music, and math, then stick to it.

K12 is offering a number of home learning resources, including free access to online summer school, that will help in supplementing learning at this time. If your child’s school must close for the remainder of the school year, you may be able to enroll in a virtual school to keep learning going while your family is home.

Video Resource

Kurzgesagt–In a Nutshell, on YouTube, have an illustrative and informative video you can show the kids that helps explain how viruses work, the specifics on COVID-19, and how preventative measures like washing hands can keep people safe from contracting it.

Finally, consider these words from one of the world’s most beloved experts on childhood, Mr. Rogers. He said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Draw your children’s attention to scientists, doctors, nurses, and first responders who are doing good work, and direct their anxiety into action by finding creative ways to thank the helpers.

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Rachel Roderick

Rachel Roderick

Rachel Roderick is a contributing writer for Learning Liftoff. She has worked in the field of human resources for 18 years. Rachel has a master’s degree in human resources and labor relations, and she is an education advocate and literacy coach for students of all ages. Rachel writes on a wide variety of topics, including education and parenting.

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