Talking to children about the coronavirus

Dr Jennifer Re, March 2020


WHO has declared novel Corona virus (Covid-19) a pandemic. Children will have questions about what a pandemic is and why we are being asked to stay at home, and not meet with friends and grandparents at this time.


There has been extensive media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Children will have noticed people wearing face masks in public places and many have picked up the concerns and anxiety of those around them. This may be through listening to parents or observing what is happening at home or at school.


It is important to reassure children. Symptoms are usually mild unless a child has a pre-existing illness. It is equally important to be open with children, whilst also being open to listening for their concerns. Don’t be afraid to talk with them about the coronavirus.


Emotional responses of children to the changes they see around them include: isolation due to school closing, individual quarantine, parent’s anxiety and family responses, talking and hearing about illness, hospitals, and death. It is normal for young children to be sensitive to these changes and they can have an impact on their feeling of security.


For children who have a history of previous separation or loss, etc., it is especially difficult. Children may or may not want to talk about their fears and distress, or may not know how to, but they will show they are stressed in various behavioural, physical and emotional ways.


Some common ways children react to stress in general include the following: more frequent crying and irritability; restlessness; problems falling asleep and staying asleep; nightmares; increased clingyness; fears of being alone; emotional dysregulation. Children may feel angry and become aggressive, or withdraw, regress (for instance, toilet training), or refuse food. These responses to stress are not just about coronavirus but can be part of their response to other stresses in their life.


If symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, or you are worried, you could talk to a health professional or ask to see someone skilled in understanding children’s issues and communication.


Talk about how they are feeling

Parents: Explain to your child that it is normal to feel worried about getting sick. Listen to your child’s concerns and reassure them that you are there to help them.

Model a calm demeanour when talking about coronavirus with children. Do not share your concerns about the coronavirus with them, but talk with your partner or a friend instead. Children take their cues from you about how to deal with their worries.

Here are some guidelines for talking and listening to children

  • Be patient

  • Speak to children about coronavirus in a calm manner

  • Ask them what they already know so you can clarify misunderstandings

  • Explain why the pandemic is happening, why their school is closed

  • Let them know it is normal to have scary feelings and experience some anxiety when new and stressful situations arise

  • Create an environment where children feel OK to ask any questions

  • Listen to their responses

  • Answer honestly using words and ideas that are pitched to their age, language and developmental stage.

  • Give children access to accurate and current information.

  • Be ready to repeat your answers as the topic may be too frightening to take in at first.

  • Give children a sense of control by explaining what they can do to stay safe (e.g., wash their hands regularly, stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing)

  • Don’t swamp them with unnecessary information (e.g., death rates) as this can increase their anxiety

  • Check if they are experiencing or spreading stigma. Talk about the importance of being kind and spreading kindness.

  • Let children know that you are following the rules to keep the family safe.

  • Reassure them that coronavirus is less common and severe in children compared to adults

  • Keep in touch (e.g. by phone or Skype/Zoom, etc) with those they may worry about, such as grandparents, this will help reassure them that they are okay.

  • Let children know that people all over the world are working hard to help those affected by the Corona virus pandemic, and to ensure further transmission is halted.

  • Reassure them that this will pass but do not give false or unrealistic promises.

  • Play with them.

  • Close the conversation with care.

Limit media exposure

Monitor your children’s exposure to media reports about the coronavirus and be with your child when they are watching, listening or reading the news. In this way you can address any questions or concerns they may have as they arise.


Maintaining Routine

  • Maintain regular mealtimes, bath-time, bed-time, playtime, and outdoor time.

  • Introduce and continue new routines such as family hand washing, wiping surfaces, washing toys. Taking purposeful action is an antidote to fear.

  • Help them stay in touch with friends using Face time, Skype, or Zoom etc.

Spend time

  • Encouraging physical activity, indoor and backyard ball games, sing and dance together. Research shows that physical exercise, song and dance are all activities that reduce stress and contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. Song and dance increase a sense of connectedness.

  • Connecting with your child with activities you both enjoy (cooking together, planting seeds, singing, etc)

  • Connectedness increases yours and your child’s sense of wellbeing and wellbeing reduces stress

  • Limit screen, while giving access to suitable programmes, such as ABC kids’ app, stories.audible.com: “Social distancing meet kids’ free listening.”

  • Bedtime stories and reading.

Stay in touch

  • If you (e.g. for work) or your child have to leave your house, maintain frequent connection on Face time, Skype, Zoom, phone, etc.

Parents take care of yourself

  • Follow the Australian Government guidelines

  • https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert

  • Follow your relevant State Government guidelines

  • Ask your child to help – doing tasks and action are antidotes to fear

  • Fill the refrigerator and pantry; cook and eat well

  • Organise online coffee chats and social drinks

  • Exercise outside or inside, get fresh air and sunshine daily, breathe deeply, and drink plenty of water.

  • Accept help and support

Additional resources

Here is a selection of good resources for talking with children about coronavirus

Adapted from several sources including:

Australian Psychological Society (APS): Tips for coping with coronavirus anxiety

ADVICE FOR PARENTS OF YOUNG CHILDREN DURING THE EPIDEMIC By Howard Osofsky, M.D., Ph.D. & Joy Osofsky, Ph.D., Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, LA, USA

CHILD PSYCHOANALYTIC PSYCHOTHERAPY ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA

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