How to talk to kids about coronavirus and anxiety

We are in unprecedented times. Kids are likely to have questions as schools close around the country. More governors and mayors are asking residents to ‘shelter in place.’ We are in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic. Things are evolving daily and no one knows how long we will need to be practicing social distancing. What does this all mean for us day to day? How do you talk to kids about what is happening in the world? How scientific should you get? Parenting in the time of the Coronavirus pandemic can be tricky, but is doable when we step back from the overwhelm.

Last week while seeing some of my private practice clients, I found myself fielding lots of questions about Coronavirus. Many kids have anxiety but even kids without anxiety had questions or things to say about what was going on.

Have you heard your child ask or complain: “Why can’t we have sleepovers or playdates?”, “Why can’t we go to school?”, “What happens if I get sick?” or “How will I know if I have the coronavirus?” How do you handle these parenting challenges? If you have heard any of the above, then keep reading.

First things first…know where to look for accurate information

Educate yourself with information from reliable sources so you can get up to the minute updates about the pandemic. Recommended sites include: Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO). Moreover, you can go to reputable websites to understand what you need to know as parents about coronavirus: Healthy Children (official parent website from the American Academy of Pediatrics) and the American Psychological Association.

When you find out or read breaking news, don’t feel like you have to go and tell your child right away. Take time to process it with your partner or spouse and think about whether sharing that information will be helpful or harmful to your child. Kids don’t need to know how many deaths have happened as they happen. However, kids do need to know what steps they can do to stay well to protect themselves and others.

Be truthful about the coronavirus pandemic but give information in child-friendly doses

Background TV is never a good idea. This is especially true now that with minimizing exposure and self-imposing quarantines. While watching the news is another way to get information, too much or continuous exposure can have a negative effect. You may catch yourself feeling overwhelmed when scrolling through social media or watching the news. If you do, pay attention to that and STOP. If you feel it, chances are your kids will feel this way too with unfiltered, nonstop news. As parents, we can control the gate of how much and how often we need to message world events to kids.

Parenting and Talking Tips to Use During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Kids who typically go to school and no longer can will likely feel happy (no school!), sad (not seeing friends) and confused (out of routine). However, school closures does not mean a free for all. Opening the conversation about the school closures is a nice way to ease into the conversation about coronavirus.

Do a mood check often, not just about school closures but how everything is affecting them day to day.

“I know you might be both happy and sad about not having to go to school.” If you guess wrong, invite your child to share their feelings with you.

No more sleepovers, no more playdates. No going out to eat or going to the movies. As of today, the President announced limiting social gatherings to no more than 10 people. The hitch is that we don’t know where their friends have been or who they have been with. Since we cannot “see” the virus and symptoms can be mild or non-existent in some people, it is just best to stay away. This can be hard on everyone. Acknowledge this disappointment or frustration head on: “It’s really hard to not be able to have a sleepover with friends. We are all doing what we need to do to keep EVERYONE safe. It won’t always be like this.”

Feelings can change day to day, moment to moment. Watch your child’s body postures and facial expressions. Keeping in mind the following phrase, “I notice that…” helps you to communicate that you are paying attention and want to provide support.

Have a family meeting and explain what school closure will mean day to day.

Schools are setting up e-learning/remote learning opportunities for students. Some of you may live in districts already doing occasional e-learning days, while some (like us) have not. Kids thrive on structure and routine and now that is out the window. What will it look like? We cannot be sure, especially as more companies and businesses make the move to close or ask employees to telecommute.

We all have to figure things out TOGETHER DAY BY DAY.

“The next few (weeks/months) will be different from what we are used to. We’ll be spending a lot more family time together during the day. We need to plan how we are all going to be in the same space. Your teacher will be sending out lessons each [day/week]. We’ll need to figure out a new routine for you to get school work done at home.”

Then, together you can create a visual schedule to give some structure to the day and communicate your expectations.

talking tips about coronavirus with kids

Invite your child to tell you what they know or have heard about the Coronavirus.

When parents do this it helps you know how they are thinking about it. You can then correct any misinformation they may have gotten from friends. “Schools around the country are deciding to close because of the coronavirus pandemic. What have you heard about coronavirus from friends, your teacher(s) or others?” Misinformation is commonplace when children talk to friends about world events or otherwise. Instead, show that you can be a trusted resource and are approachable. Taking the time to do a daily “thought check” can become part of your new routine.

Parents are trusted information resources for children. Talk to them.

Let your child’s questions about the pandemic guide how much to go in-depth.

Younger kids may not have many questions, while anxious kids may have endless questions. It is important to make time to address questions with simple but clear responses. If you don’t, kids won’t feel comfortable approaching you next time. Parents can use child friendly terms and check for understanding by asking them to repeat what was said. I like to search for videos or books to help explain tougher concepts because visual methods are easier to understand. Here is just one example of a simple, not too long video about how germs enter the body. Use this as a prelude to emphasizing the importance of hand washing, not picking noses and not shaking hands with others.

Here are some of my favorite child-friendly books for kids to help them understand about germs and hygiene

It takes time for kids to process information and their ongoing experiences, so be prepared to have the conversation a few times.

The good news is it appears that children are less likely to have severe symptoms.

Here’s a great FREE resource to help your kid understand about the Coronavirus (available in multiple languages!)

Here is a cute downloadable resource to help explain Coronavirus to children by Manuela Molina with MindHeart.Kids called, “Hello, I am a Virus, cousins with the Flu and the Common Cold. My name is Coronavirus.” The best part is it is available in a LOT of different languages! The author suggests best used for kids 7 and under.

Specific considerations for parenting kids with anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic

Rather than focus on “what ifs”, focus on actionable steps your child can do to help prevent coronavirus spread.

Anxious kids tend to get stuck on “what if” thoughts such as, “what if something bad happens to me or my family?” or “how will I know if I get coronavirus?” Encourage your anxious child by guiding them through what action steps to do. They can benefit from a gentle reminder they know what to do and be praised for continuing to do it. Steps like:

  • washing their hands for 20 seconds (as long as it takes to sing ‘happy birthday’ twice or ‘ABCs’ once quietly to themselves)
  • sneezing or coughing into their elbow
  • use a Kleenex instead of nose picking
  • keep hands to themselves (no touching faces or shaking hands)
  • helping to wipe down door knobs, light switches and faucet handles

Tell your child they are being “germ busters!” Consider checking out GiantMicrobes.com and supporting this business by getting some cute plushies to whack and toss! Each comes with a printable card to learn fun facts!

Involve your anxious child in looking at the facts or doing something positive for themselves and others.

As children gain knowledge, it can make what is happening around them less scary. However, observe your child’s body language and cues. If you choose to look up scientific information, focus on viruses, hygiene and ways to promote wellness. Don’t dwell on number of cases or deaths. Stay positive! If you have elderly or frail relatives or friends, give your child permission to “check in” on them daily through FaceTime or phone calls. Let your child spend time making “Get Well” cards. Teach children coping strategies for stress-reduction, including deep breathing or whole body scan (also known as progressive muscle relaxation).

Be on the Look out for Changes in Mood & Behavior or Regressions

Any child can show signs of regression or have new onset behavioral challenges when stressed. Kids often fall into the mode of ‘feel and respond’, especially when overwhelmed, scared, or worried. Therefore, remind yourself to not to take these things personally. Younger kids may report new fears of being alone, of the dark or bodily injury. Older children and teens may become defiant, short-tempered or oppositional. Nightmares, sleep problems or changes in appetite can happen. Kids may complain of headaches and stomachaches.

When this happens, remember that all children and teens need reassurance in uncertain times. Respond with patience, sensitivity and tolerance. Offer a hug, take time for one on one quiet time to snuggle, read together or play a game. Encourage continuing of household routines (chores, family meals) and connection with others virtually. Continue setting limits on misbehavior and praising appropriate behavior.

If you ever have concerns about your child’s overall mood and behavior, never hesitate to reach out to your child’s pediatrician. Don’t rush out but instead call the office and talk to the nurse. Some offices are offering telemedicine appointments. Your child’s provider will determine the best course of action to further provide support.

Quick ideas for staying positive through the days ahead

There are tough times ahead for all of us. We must practice social distancing and self-care and compassion. There will be times we lose our patience with our kids and with each other. Role model compassion and forgiveness. Every day is a new day. Let’s not forget our blessings. Practice gratitude with your children and have fun. Laugh. Learn a new board game. Prepare a family meal together. Take up a new hobby together. Do a jigsaw puzzle together. Write a story together. Do yoga together. Take family walks with your dog. Watch a movie together. Enjoy the small moments. This is how we will weather this together. Be well and stay safe.

RELATED: COVID-19 Information for Families of Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (Healthychildren.org)

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Written by

Nerissa Bauer

I am a behavioral pediatrician, consultant, child advocate and blogger. I am a wife, mommy to 2 amazing children and a golden retriever. Love cooking, travel, reading, tap and creating.