How to Talk to Kids about the Novel Coronavirus
Adapted from Hannah Furfaro, Seattle Times staff reporter, March 6, 2020
Be a good listener
Kids react differently to stress than adults do: They might express themselves through conversation, but they may also draw, play or show their emotions by changing their behaviors or habits. Follow the child’s lead.
Some children may ask lots of questions to soothe their anxiety, said Lynn Fainsilber Katz, research professor of child clinical psychology at the University of Washington. Others may withdraw. In any case, it’s up to adults to be good listeners and give children extra attention.
Adults can ask children questions about what they’re hearing on TV or at school. They can also reassure them that it’s OK to feel anxious or upset, guidance from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests.
But adults shouldn’t let these conversations dominate class time or dinner-table conversation. And if children want to watch the news or read stories about the outbreak, monitor what they’re taking in.
Don’t add pressure
Some kids might not want to talk right now, or at all. Respect their boundaries. One way to open up conversation is through reading a children’s book about illness, Katz said.
If children forget to catch their sneeze in their elbow or to wash their hands, don’t panic, said Heather Havey, director of Washington State University’s Children Center in Pullman. “We never put that pressure on children a few months ago,” she said. Give them a gentle reminder, and move on.
Stick to the facts
Children are good at reading adult’s emotions, so make sure to calm yourself before discussing the novel coronavirus, Katz said.
“If parents or people they know well like a teacher are scared or panicky, they are going to feel scared and panicky too,” she said.
Adults can explain what’s going on in simple language suited to the age of the child they’re speaking to, she said. For really young kids, that may mean saying “people are getting sick” or “there’s a kind of cold going around.”
For older children and teens who are likely getting information on their own, stick to what you know is true. If you’re having trouble sorting fact from fiction, check out sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization.
For questions you don’t know the answer to, don’t fake it. Misinformation can lead to more anxiety, Katz said.
For all age groups, present information in a “calm, descriptive and factual manner,” she added.
Parents can remind children that they’re doing everything possible to keep their family healthy; likewise, teachers can describe all the ways that students can protect themselves. For instance, adults can remind children to wash their hands often and to cover their mouth with their elbow when they sneeze.
“Instead of feeling powerless to this illness it gives them a sense of agency,” Katz said.
The World Health Organization recommends that adults provide information about risk in a reassuring way. For example, adults can say to kids that they aren’t particularly vulnerable to the virus, unless they have a compromised immune system. Adults should also be honest about the possibility that if they or someone they know feels ill, they may need to see a doctor or go to the hospital.
Keep regular routines
To whatever extent possible, stick to regular schedules at school and at home, the World Health Organization suggests. If school closes, parents can create a new routine at home. Give kids time to play, relax and take their mind off what’s worrying them.
Adults should also lead by example, Havey said. “Keep with routine and consistency, follow best practices,” she said. “I think that will help children to better understand that we need to be practical and in charge of our bodies.”