The COVID-19 pandemic is taking over our news feeds, social media, conversations with friends and family — pretty much everywhere we look or listen, you will find a mention of COVID-19. It can be overwhelming for many of us. This is especially difficult for children, who may not have a true grasp on everything going on and who may even be confused due to the spread of misinformation. It is important that, as parents and guardians, we talk to children about our world’s current public health crisis to not only ease their concerns, but also ensure they have tools to keep themselves healthy.
Below, I offer four strategies on how to talk to children about COVID-19 and ways to stay healthy:
Initiate the conversation.
Chances are good that your child has already heard a lot of information about COVID-19 from friends or through social media. Rather than waiting for your child to come to you, start talking to them about what’s going on sooner rather than later.
Listen to your child and ask questions.
Gain an understanding of what they’ve heard and what they are worried about. Kids often misinterpret information or are more likely to believe inaccurate information.
Provide honest and accurate information.
For younger kids, keep information simple and balance facts with reassurances that doctors and scientists are learning as much as they can about the new coronavirus so that we can keep them safe.
Older children may need help separating reality from rumors. High school students can discuss issues in a more adult-like way and should be referred directly to sources of factual information about the current status of COVID-19.
Remain calm and give reassurance.
Remember that kids look to adults for guidance on how to react in stressful situations, so be careful that your verbal and nonverbal cues do not increase their worry or anxiety.
For younger children, emphasize that their home is safe and that adults are there to take care of them if they get sick. Give simple examples of ways they can stay healthy, such as washing hands and sneezing or coughing into their sleeve.
For older children, knowledge can give a sense of control but can also cause more anxiety if they become fixated on seeking new information about COVID-19. Correct any inaccurate information or rumors that they hear. Teenagers may feel better when helping others, so discuss how their actions to protect themselves will also benefit society as a whole. You might give them the task of cleaning things that are commonly touched in the home.
In talking to your children, suggest ways they can stay healthy and strong, maintaining a routine even though their day-to-day might drastically change. Encourage activities or behaviors in children by not only talking about their importance but also modeling these behaviors yourself. Instilling these behaviors now will help your children remain safe from other illnesses, not just COVID-19.
- Establish routine health precautions. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve. Keep your hands off of your face. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (sing the ABC’s or the “Happy Birthday” song twice).
- Limit screen time. Information on television, the internet, or social media may cause increased anxiety and may not be accurate. Engage children in reading, games, or other interesting activities.
- Encourage reading. Reading will benefit their social and cognitive development, while providing a stress-relieving escape from external problems.
- Keep up schoolwork. Encourage children to keep up with schoolwork or extracurricular activities to maintain as much of a normal routine as possible.
- Skype with friends and family. Social distance to avoid getting sick and unintended doctor’s visits. Replace play dates with family time and maintain at least 6 feet from other children. Encourage virtual visits with grandparents or high-risk adults.
- Eat a balanced diet. Encourage your child to eat a balanced diet, drink lots of water, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly to keep their immune systems strong.
- Keep things clean. Older kids can help clean things that are commonly touched, like doorknobs and light switches.
Don’t know where to begin?
If you’re still feeling a little lost on starting to talk with your children about COVID-19, a number of organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer additional resources to help have these conversations.
David J. Schneider, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician who practices at Virginia Mason Bellevue Medical Center. He specializes in pediatrics and adolescent medicine. Dr. Schneider earned his medical degree from University of Washington School of Medicine, did his residency at New York University and practiced at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as well as a private practice in south Orange County, Calif. He is also a former professional dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet Company whose interests include sports medicine, LGBTQ health and all areas of general pediatrics.