Turn on any television, read the front page of the newspaper, listen to the radio or check in on social media and the chances are really good you will hear or see something about Coronavirus (COVID-19). As adults, we are hungry to learn all we can about it in an effort to protect ourselves and the ones we love.
Even though you may think your children aren’t really tuned in to what is going on, think again. Chances are good, even for very young children, that they know something is up. Mommy seems tense and uneasy. Daddy is watching more news than normal. People are wearing masks. The usual weekly trip to the grocery store or delivery from the grocery store included lots of toilet paper, bottled water and cleaning wipes. And, to top it off, a friend on the playground talked about some virus that’s going to make all of us sick.
As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do in situations like this. Will talking about it create fear in your child? If they don’t bring it up, should I say something anyway? If I’m not confident in what I know about this virus, where would I even begin to explain it to my child? These are all valid concerns.
The thing is, children are perceptive. They know something is going on. The fact that you aren’t talking to them about it could actually make the whole situation scarier. Clearly, you need to consider the age of your child as you decide what to say. The Child Mind Institute, along with other experts, encourages parents to do the following when it comes to talking with your children:
- Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Look at the conversation as an opportunity to share the facts and set the emotional tone in your home. Your goal is to make sure your child feels safe and knows that they can ask you any questions they have about this.
- Be developmentally appropriate. There is a lot about this situation that is unknown. One of the easiest things we can teach at any age is the importance of washing hands. If the only thing good that comes out of this whole experience is that people learn the important habit of handwashing, that is a win for everybody. If your child has questions, try to answer them simply. If you don’t know that answer, say so.
- Take your cues from your child. Encourage them to ask you questions. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility for a child to hear from a friend that we are all going to die from this strain of Coronavirus. That is an unlikely scenario and being able to say so can alleviate unnecessary fears.
- Deal with your own anxiety. Watching endless amounts of news can create more anxiety because your brain doesn’t know you are watching reruns of the same thing over and over. When you are experiencing high levels of anxiety, that is not the time to try and have a conversation with your child. Wait until you have calmed down. Setting limits on how much time you allow yourself to watch the news can help decrease your anxiety.
- Be reassuring. If your child is watching the news with you, watching people leave the cruise ships and seeing people in the hospital, it would be easy for them to believe they could easily catch the virus or that lots of people are dying from Coronavirus. It is helpful to reassure your child about how rare the Coronavirus really is, that they are much more likely to catch the flu, and that if children do get it, their symptoms are milder.
- Focus on what you are doing to stay safe. We all feel empowered when we know what precautions we can take. Talk about washing hands and singing Happy Birthday or another fun song they like that lasts 20 seconds, when they come in from outside, after they go to the bathroom, sneeze, cough or blow their nose and before they eat. This is a great habit to establish in general. Also, getting enough sleep is important. If your child asks about wearing a mask, tell them that the experts aren’t telling us to do that at the moment and we are listening to what the experts are saying.
- Stick to routine. Routines, rituals, consistency and structure provide security for children. When we waiver from the usual and customary, that’s when their radar goes up. If for some reason their school or child care center closes, think about how you handle things during any other break and do that. Chances are good that their schools have closed before due to the flu in an effort to sanitize the building and give people space and time to recover. Structured days – getting up at the usual time, doing the things you normally do – will help your child to thrive even in the midst of this moment in time.
- Keep talking. Keep the lines of communication open. This doesn’t mean this is the topic of conversation every time you sit down to a meal or are together. Tell your children that if new information comes out that would be helpful for them to know, you will for sure tell them.
Our kids look to us to see how we either respond or react to situations, and they often take their cues from us. There are so many things in our lives that we can’t control, but we can determine how we handle conversations and things in our own home. Hopefully, this information can help you communicate what your kids really need to know, help them sort fact from fiction and ease any fear they may have in the process.
This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on March 14, 2020.