Talking to Kids About Coronavirus

Talking to Kids About Coronavirus

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

A mom and her 3-and-a-half-year-old little girl stop at the library to drop off some books. The little girl sees a candy on the floor and starts to reach for it. The mom yells no, a 6-foot-tall security guard standing nearby, sees what’s happening, and leaps toward the candy. In one grand gesture, he kicks the candy under the bookshelves. The little girl stands there in shock.

It is clear from this anecdote that even young children are directly affected by the coronavirus and need to know what’s happening. They are not going to preschool, they are required to keep washing their hands over and over again, and they sense the adults are very upset. The TV is blaring at times during the day and the word, “coronavirus” is mentioned every other second. Grim images of people in masks and in hospital beds repeatedly flash across the screen, and little children’s questions abound. “Why is everyone home?” “Why is that man wearing a mask?” “Why do I have to wash my hands, again. I just did it?” and there are plenty of tears, “I want to have my birthday party!” Why aren’t we going to visit Grandma?” Life has certainly changed for our youngsters.

Older kids have heard about the virus from TV, their family and friends, and the web, so they tend to understand more details about the virus. They are upset because they know that older people are dying and worry their parents or grandparents will die, or that they will get sick and die. They might know about a child in their class, or a neighbor in the building who has the symptoms, and panic about catching it from them. We want to keep our children of all ages safe, so we need to give them the essential information.

The old approach to children was to hide bad news or problems from them, in an effort not to scare them. But children pick up the distress around them right away. Lacking a trusted grown-up’s explanation, they fill in the blanks with scary thoughts. I remember as a child losing my grandfather, and the grown-ups told my little cousin that Grandpa went away. She sat on the stoop every day waiting for him, and was convinced he left her because she did something wrong. Children function better when you give them information and tools to cope.

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. No matter what is happening, even if we are upset, we have to be strong for our children. At a difficult time like this, we need to find a way to give our children information without frightening them and provide them with comfort and support. Here are some suggestions:

Staying calm is crucial. If you are relaxed and speak in a matter of fact way, your child will accept the facts and not panic. If you are positive and optimistic, your child will mirror your approach.

As you explain the situation, emphasize what the family is doing for protection (such as washing hands often for twenty seconds, and staying home which is called social distancing), as well as the things the community is doing (establishing special hours for older people to shop in supermarkets), and the government (closing schools, restaurants, and nonessential businesses), and explain that this is the plan to stop the spread, while we find a cure for the disease. You don’t need to explain everything in one sitting. Your children will keep coming back with questions and situations will arise in which you need to explain more. Below are some words to keep handy in your pocket.

When talking to your young child, you want to explain coronavirus in a way that touches on his own experience. This will deepen his understanding of what is happening. For instance, some parents are explaining to their young child that there are a lot of germs around called coronavirus, and people are getting sick. Young children understand the concept of germs and handwashing because they have been told to wash their hands when they come in from playing at the park. They also know not to drink from another child’s cup, because germs can spread from one person to another and make people sick.

Another way to explain coronavirus to a young child is in relation to colds. You can explain: “When we have a cold, it’s called a virus. Remember when you had a cold? At school, the teachers told you to wash your hands, because you could give the cold to a friend very easily. For the same reason, you must cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze into a tissue. When we have a cold, we rest, we drink hot tea, and sometimes we have a little temperature, but after a few days, we feel better.

Sometimes you can get a stronger virus called the flu. If you get the flu you feel sicker, so they now have a shot that helps us not to get it. (Remind him that the doctor gave him a flu shot.) Every now and then there is a new virus. This new one is called the coronavirus. It’s like a flu, but it’s much stronger and people can catch it from one another when they cough or sneeze. That is why we wash our hands often, we don’t touch our face (the germ can get into our body through our nose or mouth), we cough into our elbow and sneeze into a tissue, and right now we are staying away from other people except our family. When we see other people, we walk 6 feet away from them so no one spreads the virus.

Because it’s a new virus we have no medicine or a vaccine, yet. If we stay home, except for walks or to shop for what we need, wash our hands, and do not touch our face we will be less likely to catch it. The doctors and scientists will be working on medicine or shots that will cure us. People won’t get sick anymore and you will be able to go back to school. It’s going to take a while, though. If you get frightened or have any questions, come and tell us.

When you start your conversation with an older child ask, “What do you understand about the coronavirus?” You want to give him a chance to tell you what he knows, so you can correct any misconceptions. Also, ask him what his worries are. You might ask, “Are you frightened or worried about anything? “Then you can explain that from time to time there is a new virus. It’s happened to us many times before, for instance, smallpox, measles, and polio, and after some time they found a cure. You can share your own experiences too. For instance, “I remember the polio epidemic when I was a little girl. Parents and children had the same fears and we had to be careful. But eventually, they found a cure and life went back to normal.”

Explain that some people can get coronavirus more easily, such as older people, or people who have compromised immune systems due to an underlying illness. They can get much sicker and some die, but many older people are stronger and have better immune systems, and might not get it at all. Reassure him that children are not getting very sick. If anyone in the family gets it, it might feel like a bad cold or the flu, or we may not have any symptoms. Point out that if we wash our hands often, eat and sleep well, use hand sanitizer when we’re out, do not touch our faces and stay at home with the family, except for walks and shopping, it is likely we will not get it.

Encourage your children to talk to you if they are frightened or have any questions. Convey that it is OK to have fear even if the family is trying to be strong and upbeat. If family members start to fight, remind them that everyone is anxious and frightened, and fear causes people to get angry. Try to stay cool so you can calm your kids down. Distracting them with a game or a fun activity will change their moods.

Don’t overload your children with information. Instead, follow their lead by answering their questions. Avoid constant talk about the virus or keeping the TV on too much—you might make your kids nervous. It’s better to watch TV out of earshot of your children or listen on your phone, unless they ask to watch the news.

Provide reassurance and optimism to any age child. Tell your child, “Mommy and Daddy love you, and will keep you safe. You don’t have to worry. The doctors and scientists are working on possible cures and they will find one, but it might take a while.”

During such a difficult time in our world, I want my blog to be a resource for you on how to help your kids cope with the coronavirus. The next few posts will include other related topics including how to keep your kids calm, active, and optimistic. If you have any questions, please post them in the comment section, and over time I’ll try to answer them.