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How Should You Talk to Your Kids About COVID-19?

How Should You Talk to Your Kids About COVID-19?

Learn how parents in Georgia can start the conversation and help children cope with worries about the new coronavirus.

Updated May 19, 2020 at 5pm EST

While the fear and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak can weigh heavily on the minds of adults, it’s important to remember that children may need help coping, too.

Kids are not immune to concerns about infection or illness, particularly in a world where media reports and social media rants are just a click or finger swipe away. In many cases, young people can also pick up on the anxiety of the grown-ups they rely on and trust, particularly as fears about infection mingle with uncertainty around reopening and resuming life.

In short, if you’re at all worried about COVID-19, it’s safe to assume your kids are, too.

“Children are receiving messages about COVID-19 from so many sources, some likely more credible than others,” says Michael S. Mitchell, MD, medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Brenner Children's Hospital and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I would strongly urge parents to initiate age-appropriate conversations with their children.”

But even if you’d like to help put your kids’ minds at ease, knowing what—and how much—to say about the new coronavirus may seem difficult since there are still a lot of unknowns.

Starting the conversation
When speaking to kids about COVID-19, take your cues from them, advises licensed psychologist Linda Nicolotti, PhD, section head, pediatric psychology and behavioral health at Wake Forest Baptist Health.

“Let children guide the discussion by addressing what they have heard or seen, their feelings, and their questions,” says Nicolotti.

Asking children what they are hearing about the disease from various sources also gives you an opportunity to dispel any myths that could incite undue worry or fear, adds Dr. Mitchell.

When determining how much detail kids should hear about the pandemic, take their ages into consideration, Nicolotti recommends. This means a conversation you have with a teenager may be very different from the talk you have with a younger child.

“Present information that is developmentally appropriate in a calm manner,” Nicolotti says. For example, speak with younger children at eye level with a gentle voice, using simple words they can understand. Older kids and teens, on the other hand, may need more facts and reassurances to help them regain a sense of control.

Helping kids cope and feel safe
Children react differently to anxiety and stress than adults. In some cases, kids may hide their feelings or not respond immediately, making it more difficult to know if they’re worried or upset. When talking to your children about COVID-19, the following strategies can help you not only allay their concerns but also empower them to protect themselves and others.

Educate yourself first. The best antidote for the fear of the unknown is information. “The facts can be reassuring,” Nicolotti explains.

Before you can be open and honest with your children, you need to become informed yourself. Most cases of COVID-19 are mild. Current estimates suggest that about 16 percent of cases result in severe illness and complications. Fewer still, about 5 percent, will develop very serious issues. That means hundreds of thousands of people around the world have already recovered from the infection—far surpassing the number of confirmed deaths.

Kids are not immune to COVID-19, but researchers investigating the effects of the coronavirus on the body have found that young people who do become infected tend to develop mild cases. Meanwhile, reports of serious complications among children are rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There does seem to be one notable exception. Though the vast majority of infected kids have only mild illness, a condition identified in April called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) has put at least 130 U.S. children in the hospital, and is suspected to be linked to COVID-19. Symptoms include fever and inflammation, and resemble those of Kawasaki disease, an acute pediatric condition that can lead to heart damage. While dangerous, MIS-C remains very rare, however.

Mitchell notes that the effects of COVID-19 on children are still under investigation and parents should still vigilantly monitor kids and be aware of any symptoms, such as coughing, fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain and rash or changes in skin color. If you believe your child may have been exposed to COVID-19, call your pediatrician to report their symptoms and receive instructions on what to do next.

Don’t dismiss or discount their worries. Kids’ feelings about COVID-19 should be validated—not brushed aside, Nicolotti says. Even if your intentions are good, telling anxious kids not to worry isn’t an effective approach.

Listen to your children. Ask them if they have any questions and let them know that it’s okay to be sad or worried and to express those feelings. Children who are hesitant to talk about how they are feeling may be more comfortable drawing or putting their thoughts on paper.

Empower them to protect themselves. Teaching children how they can reduce their risk for infection will give them a sense of control over the situation.

We can support them by educating them about how to help prevent further spread of this disease by promoting good hand hygiene, sneezing into your arm,” Mitchell advises. “These recommendations still stand as our best defense.”

Washing your hands well and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself against COVID-19. Kids should be instructed to avoid touching any part of their face, including their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

Adults may have trouble not touching their faces with potentially contaminated hands. So, reminding kids to do the same will likely require constant effort. Mitchell notes that older kids could also carry hand sanitizer with them and use it on their hands frequently when they don’t have immediate access to soap and water.

Shift the focus to the positives. Amid the steady stream of ominous headlines and media reports, it’s also important to point out that doctors and scientists around the world are working hard to keep everyone safe.

If your child seems to be overly anxious about COVID-19, speak to your pediatrician about other steps you can take to help ease this stress. Some children may benefit from the added support of a trained psychologist or counselor.

Ask your pediatrician for a recommendation or reach out to a Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities regional field office for information and resources. Many providers in Georgia are conducting telehealth appointments, so you may not have to travel to an office.

Limit exposure to news coverage and social media. Being informed about the coronavirus and how to help curb its spread is important, but excessive consumption of information about COVID-19 may overload or overwhelm children, advises Nicolotti. Kids need some time away from reminders about the outbreak.

Repeated exposure to distressing information and images in the news can exacerbate anxiety,” Nicolotti says. “For children and adolescents with access to social media, discuss with them how they can limit social media exposure to coronavirus information and why this is important to do.”

Being mindful about what children are listening to at home or in the car is also important. And don’t let coronavirus discussions completely take over family time.

Set a good example. In helping children understand and manage their concerns about COVID-19, taking steps to manage your own anxiety (and not just pretend everything is okay) is essential. Kids take their cues from their parents and caregivers, Nicolotti points out. So, be sure to model a healthy routine, eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly. Doing so will not only help alleviate stress but also help support the immune system.

Stick to normal routines as much as possible. Despite some apparent progress in slowing disease spread, it remains unclear how disruptive the outbreak will ultimately be for Georgians. Large-scale gatherings may be postponed for quite a while. Many parents may be telecommuting for months. Schools and daycares may remain closed due to infection. As events unfold, try to maintain your normal routines as much as possible, including consistent times for playing, family dinners and bedtime.

Remember, when talking to children about COVID-19, information should be relayed in manageable doses to avoid overwhelming kids with too much information at once, Nicolotti adds. And keep the lines of communication open as the situation develops.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

Sources:

National Association of School Psychologists. “Talking to Children About COVID-19 (Coronavirus): A Parent Resource.”
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Talking With Children: Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers During Infectious Disease Outbreaks.”
David J. Schonfeld, Thomas Demaria and the Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “Providing Psychosocial Support to Children and Families in the Aftermath of Disasters and Crises.” Pediatrics, October 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently Asked Questions and Answers: Coronavirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19) and Children.”
American Academy of Pediatrics. “2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Transcript for the CDC Telebriefing Update on COVID-19.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) Associated with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” April 24, 2020.
CBS New York. “Cuomo Says He’s ‘Very Aggressive’ About Sports Returning, Says State Will Work With Teams.” May 19, 2020.
Georgia Department of Public Health. “Office of Telehealth and Telemedicine.”
Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. “Mental Health for Children, Young Adults, and Families.”

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