Talking to your children about the coronavirus

Learn more about the do’s and don’ts of talking to your children about the novel coronavirus.

Woman washing her hands at the sink

News stations, social media and conversations among family and friends are dominated these days with talk of the novel coronavirus. As rumors swirl about school’s closures, parents stock up on supplies in case of quarantines and vacations are cancelled, many parents are wondering how to talk to their kids about coronavirus. What should you say? How much information should you provide? Should you say anything at all? The short answer is yes, you should talk to them about coronavirus. Michigan State University Extension offers the following do’s and don’ts for parents as they tackle these tough conversations.

DO talk about the novel coronavirus with your children. When something captures the headlines the way coronavirus has, parents often find themselves wondering if they should talk to children about it at all. After all, they’re kids, and it’s not their responsibility to prepare or worry about these types of things. However, not talking to children about things can actually make them worry more.

Children have very active imaginations and will fill in the absences in information with what they hear from friends, on the playground or bus, or catch in adult conversations. Your goal as a parent is to be the accurate source of news and information for your children, providing enough information to keep them informed but not so much as to cause panic.

Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, with Harvard Health recommends parents think about what their child absolutely needs to know to understand the virus and what to do about it. Dr. Sperling also recommends the Center for Disease Control’s FAQ page and the World Health Organization’s Myth Busters page for current information and correct answers to common misconceptions.

DO explain the facts in a developmentally appropriate manner. Children often have very basic questions. Answer these factually and simply.

  • What is coronavirus? It is a type of germ that causes people to get sick. Sometimes they get a little sick. Sometimes they get a fever and cough. Sometimes it can make it hard to breathe.
  • How do people get it? Coronavirus spreads like most colds and the flu through tiny droplets in the air and on surfaces when people sneeze or cough. These droplets get into a healthy person’s body and they carry the germ that makes you sick.
  • What can I do to not get sick? Sneeze or cough into your elbow or a tissue. Wash your hands very well using soap and water. When you wash your hands, count to 20 or sing the ABC’s or Happy Birthday. Try to not touch your face, mouth, nose, eyes, etc.

DO NOT show your anxiety. It is important to stay calm while discussing coronavirus. Janine Domingues, PhD, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, cautions parents in her article “Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus.” “When you’re feeling most anxious or panicked, that isn’t the time to talk to your kids about what’s happening with the coronavirus,” says Dr. Domingues. Children look to you for the cues in how to react in frightening situations. Model calmness and provide factual information about what you are doing to stay safe. Limit children’s news exposure by watching after they are in bed or reading the news separately.

DO focus on what you and others in the community are doing to stay safe. Children feel as if they have more control in a situation when they have steps they can do to stay safe. Explain that simply washing their hands is the best thing they can do to keep the coronavirus germ from making them sick. They might see people wearing masks to be extra safe. In some areas, people are avoiding large crowds to reduce the spread of germs.

DO NOT disrupt routines whenever possible. If your children’s child care, school, after school activities or your work is disrupted, remember to maintain normal routines at home. Keep your usual bedtimes and meal times, and limit screen time. Children do best with predictable routines and structures.

DO keep an open line of communication. Assure your children that you will answer any questions they have about COVID-19. It’s OK to let them know that we still do not know a lot but that you will keep them updated as we learn more. Your goal is to be their trusted source of information so that they will come to you when they have questions.

It's very normal for children to ask questions about the things they’re hearing about in the world around them. Take time to be prepared, focused and calm in your responses and provide children with factual, developmentally appropriate information.

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