A guide to talking to your kids about the coronavirus

Updated: May 4, 2020

Think about it.

Even we adults, with our supposedly well-developed prefrontal cortexes and emotional regulation, can find ourselves freaking out about the new coronavirus.

It’s kind of hard not to, what with the constant flow of confusing and sometimes contradictory information coming from all directions.

If coronavirus is scary to us, what does it look like to our kids?

Fortunately, we know some pretty smart people who are fluent at speaking and understanding the language of children.

One of those is Charley Joyce, LCSW, an Abound counselor who has 40 years of experience working with children and families. Here are some tips from Joyce and several other expert sources:

  • Be calm, and parent on. Our kids take their cues from us, so it’s important that parents themselves don’t panic in their children’s presence around the topic. “My thing I tell parents is, ‘Remember, we’re the big people,’” Joyce says. We need to remind ourselves that our kids depend on us for protection and safety, so it’s best to be in a calm state when approaching the topic with our littles.

  • Ask, then LISTEN. The first step is to ask your child what they’ve heard about the coronavirus, and then to really listen to what they know and why they are concerned. Children tend to be egocentric, so be aware that they may be worried about catching the virus themselves. If we respond by saying, “You’ll be fine,” most children won’t feel heard or reassured. It is better to acknowledge their fears while also gently correcting misinformation and providing reassurance (“I understand why you’re worried, but we do know very few children seem to be getting sick from the virus.”) If you don’t know the answer to one of their questions, assure them that you will check a trustworthy news resource and get back to them as soon as possible.

  • Keep it age-appropriate. You don’t want to overwhelm them by forwarding 12 internet links or talking about the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Stay on topic and keep it simple and understandable. In a recent New York Times article, Dunya Poltorak, a pediatric medical psychologist and Abi Gewirtz, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, shared several examples of the right tone to use, especially with younger children: “There’s lots of different viruses, like when your tummy hurts, or sometimes when you have a bad cold. Coronavirus is another type of virus. This illness is different than a cold because it’s new, but people are trying really hard to make sure it doesn’t spread, and they treat people who are sick. If you have any questions, just ask me.”

Or: “Scientists and really smart people all around the world are trying to figure out how to keep people safe and healthy.” Older kids might find the following cartoon helpful in

understanding the virus: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/28/809580453/just-for-kids-a-comic-exploring-the-new-coronavirus

  • Unplug. Exposing children to a nonstop diet of COVID-19 updates will only cause their anxiety to spike. Limit their contact to news and, if you can, keep them off social media, which is especially notorious for rumors and unreliable information.

  • Stress the fact they can depend on you to do everything you can to keep everyone safe from the virus. It can help a lot to hear that your parents are prepared and know what to do to avoid contracting the virus. This also is the ideal opportunity to educate them about how germs can be passed from person to person, and how sanitation measures can prevent that. “You’ll notice Dad and I are wiping down counters, tables, our phones and the remotes a lot more as a way to keep everyone safe and healthy. Did you want to help us?"

  • Make cleanliness a game. The good people at PBS and the Fred Rogers Company suggest making safety fun. Show kids the proper way to “catch” a cough or sneeze with

their elbows instead of into their hands. Reinforce this behavior with positive reinforcement: “Way to go. You caught it! That’s what germ-busters do!” If they forget and accidentally “catch it in their hands,” remind them to simply wash their hands with soap and water and start the game again.

  • Give them a hand(washing). Speaking of which, you can start making hand-washing a family routine before every meal and snack. If you do it together, model for them how to use lots of soap, busily rub their hands together and rinse – all while singing “Happy Birthday to You” twice. Tell them they should also wash their hands after blowing their noses, coughing, sneezing or using the bathroom. You might even make a contest of it, naming the best hand-washer as the Champion Germ Buster for the day!

  • Make the most of family time. It’s hard to miss work, especially if you’re worried about your paycheck and the whole family is stuck under one roof. Joyce suggests finding the silver lining in this extended time together. Tell the kids you won’t be able to go as many places to do activities, but use the time for art projects, a baking afternoon or a family hike in a park or another sparsely populated area.

  • Check out these excellent sites, which share more tips on how to address the topic with children:

  • https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-coronavirus?fbclid=IwAR3KdttouZvPEq1s3-6fsiBfZ4OmZDhdVC0Y46B8BEBZO-PfZscJ7o69Pkw

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhVad8ToCiU

  • A guide for talking to kids, based on their age-ranges: http://www.parentslead.org/COVID-19

Learn more about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 at: https://www.lssnd.org/covid19

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