The Dos and Don’ts of Talking About the Coronavirus With Kids
Parents aren’t the only ones anxious about the spread of COVID-19. If your child feels uneasy about the latest news reports, use these tips to keep her informed without spreading unnecessary fear.
It’s easy to understand why you may want to avoid talking about scary topics—such as the coronavirus —with your kids. Every parent wants to protect their children from avoidable anxiety. But when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, kids probably already know more about it than parents realize, thanks to social media and constant news reports, says media psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, M.D. And unfortunately, a lot of what they're hearing on a day-to-day basis may not be accurate or up-to-date.
Just like with so many other heavy topics, it falls on parents to discuss the coronavirus with their kids in a way that eases worry, promotes knowledge, and stops the spread of misinformation. Here are some tips for starting the conversation.
Do keep them informed.
Having an incomplete picture of COVID-19 might create unease in kids. Clear up the rumors by being an open, honest source of information. You can explain the coronavirus and its origins, then let kids ask questions. This comic-style diagram from NPR might help spark conversation.
And be cautious of letting kids consume media without you: "Everyone should be cautious of the sensational media 'hooks' employed to draw eyes, ears, and clicks to news stories about coronavirus," advises Charles Bailey, M.D. medical director for infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. "Kids, in particular, should probably not be consuming such information without an adult present to provide an age-appropriate context and filter out the more anxiety-provoking content."
Don’t become an alarmist.
Kids are sensitive to the anxiety of their parents, says pediatrician Dyan Hes, M.D., founder of Gramercy Pediatrics. So even though you might be worried about the unknowns and unanswered questions regarding the coronavirus, try to keep things optimistic for your child. For example, you can say, “Younger people like yourself are less likely to get the disease. And if you do contract it, it’ll probably just be like a cold.”
Do use age-appropriate language.
Little kids don't understand the words quarantine and transmission, but you can still talk about the coronavirus with them. "Use lively terms like germ and bugs and incorporate animated pictures. Also use very concrete language about how boogers or spit can cause germs to pass to one person or the next," suggests Rosemary Olivero, M.D., division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. "Kids also remember their own illnesses, so referencing those salient examples can be really helpful."
Don’t make a big deal out of preparations.
You're probably stocking up on food, cleaning supplies, and other items. But according to Dr. Hes, this could make your child panic. Shield little ones from your family’s preparatory measures, if possible. If they do inquire about the extra toilet paper in the closet, simply say you’re preparing for the entire family being home and using the bathroom.
Do talk about government response to the coronavirus.
Tell your child about everything that’s being done to combat the disease, like preventing travel, closing schools, and testing out vaccinations, says Andrea Barbalich, parenting expert and newly appointed Editor in Chief of The Week Junior. Knowing that America has a plan might ease your child’s worries.
Don't ignore proper hand hygiene.
The best way to prevent the coronavirus is to maintain proper hand hygiene. “Teach your children how to wash their hands using soap and water for at least 15-20 seconds, or how long it takes to sing the ABCs,” recommends Robert Frenck, M.D., medical director, division of infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. This is especially important before eating or touching your face, because bacteria-laden droplets can enter your body through the nose, eyes, and mouth.
Also teach your children to cough into their arm, throw away used tissues right away, and wipe down communal items (like keyboards) before use. Limiting bacteria exposure can help keep your entire family coronavirus-free.