7 Scripts to Talk to Kids about the Coronavirus
Let’s talk. It’s hard to escape discussions of the coronavirus as it’s been provided in heaping bowlfuls from the news, to the internet to emails from the dentist, gym, school and soccer coach.
As a Child Development Specialist who directs parents to manage scary news from outside sources before it hits their children’s ears, this can be a challenge in today’s information-saturated world. What we do know is that we must talk to our children about the coronavirus so that they are not filling in the blanks themselves based on what they’ve heard from less credible sources or surmised from watching the panic around them. My own daughter came home from school having heard that someone contracted the virus in a town a half hour away and asked; “can we move?”
Anxiety is high. Rumors are rampant.
Children (and adults) are clearly getting frightened. Still, it can be challenging to know what to do and say to our kids about the coronavirus. We don’t want to alarm them but we do want them to be knowledgeable, vigilant and conscientious. We know we should shut off the news to assuage fears but we don’t want to keep them in the dark. So, what can we do and say to prepare them rather than scare them?
(1) Ask what they already know: Whenever talking to kids about tough topics, it’s important to first assess what they have already heard or gleaned about the subject.
· Script: “Sweetheart, there has been a lot of talk about the coronavirus. You might have heard people talking about it in school, on the bus or at your after-school activities. What have you heard about it?” Listen to your child reveal his or her understanding about the coronavirus so that you know what needs to be corrected as well as what needs to divulged.
(2) Explain what it is in age-appropriate terms: Since much of the panic about the COVID-19 has centered around it’s contagiousness and morbidity, many children worry that the coronavirus is a disease that kills anyone who gets it. It’s important to be clear and age-appropriate about exactly what the coronavirus is so that children aren’t ruminating about incorrect information.
· Script: “There have been coronaviruses around for a long time and it can cause colds and infections in the lungs. There is a new type of coronavirus that started recently called COVID-19. Some people, when they get this kind of coronavirus, look like they just have a regular cold. They might sneeze or cough and have a runny nose. They might get a fever too. Other people, many of whom are older or who are already sick or weak, can get a worse case of the coronavirus. These people need help to get well because the COVID-19 can spread to their lungs and cause bigger problems like bronchitis and pneumonia.”
(3) Manage your child’s anxiety: It’s normal to feel anxious about the coronavirus as toilet paper and hand sanitizer is disappearing from supermarket shelves and schools are closing to minimize the spread. Dawn Huebner, author of the perennial best-selling children’s book, What to Do When You Worry Too Much, and a two-time guest on my podcast, How to Talk to Kids about Anything, suggests teaching your anxious children a mantra like “I am safe” or “Just because I am afraid, doesn’t mean that I am in danger.” In addition, be sure to keep routines as regular as possible and boost care-taking and stress-reducing activities like exercising and playing fun, laughter-inducing games while still being smart about hygiene and health. Reassure them that the key adults in their lives, especially those who are older, are also doing what they can to stay well. And make sure they know YOU are doing what you can to keep yourself healthy too.
· Script: “I’ve noticed that you seem a little nervous lately about the coronavirus. How are you feeling? It’s normal to feel anxious about this virus as so many people are talking about it and it feels very big and heavy. Some kids are worried about the people they love like their parents or grandparents. As for me, I have a very strong immune system and I am washing my hands, eating nutritious foods and getting rest to stay strong. Grandma and Grandpa are staying out of crowds and they postponed their trip so that they can minimize how much exposure they have to the virus. We all expect to stay healthy so that we can feel good and look forward to spending time together with our friends and family soon!”
(4) Discuss proper, healthy hygiene: As parents, we have been teaching children about good hygiene for years. And yes, we typically remind our kids to be better about hand-washing and covering their mouth with their elbow when they cough around flu and cold season. Still, given the “spreadability” of the coronavirus and the potential danger to those at higher risk, it’s important to impress on children to “do their part” to keep themselves healthy and keep older or infirmed people safe.
· Script: “Since it’s cold and flu season and some people are getting viruses, let’s make sure we are being extra responsible right now with cleaning our hands with soap and water, ok? And we can keep others healthy by staying home if we are sick and keep ourselves healthy from staying away from others who are coughing and sneezing. We also want to keep our hands away from our eyes, nose or mouth because germs can enter our bodies that way. And you know what? Even though it’s fun to share with our friends, right now let’s not share forks or straws so we don’t share germs — because that’s not the good kind of sharing! I’ll make sure to keep all of the toys you love and the tables we use a lot nice and clean and disinfected so that we don’t have to worry about those having germs on them.”
(5) Shift the attention to what CAN be done: Many people have heard the directive; “look for the helpers.” And while this is true, many children gain a sense of calm and pride when they become the helpers themselves. Ask the children to box up some goods to take over to the food pantry. Make soup together for an elderly neighbor. Drop off new books, games and stuffed animals with your child life worker at your local hospital. When children are contributing to those in need, they can feel more powerful and less scared.
‘“Many people have heard the directive; ‘look for the helpers.’ And while this is true, many children gain a sense of calm and pride when they become the helpers themselves.”
· Script: “While some people are getting sick, we can do something to help them! We can gather up some of our extra boxes of pasta and sauce or make special snack bags and bring the goods over to the food pantry for people who are in need. Or we can give some of the money from our “charity jar” to help people who have the virus in all parts of the world. What would you like to do to help others? You can be like a superhero helping others in need!”
(6) Comfort & Reassure: Let your children know that key adults around the world are working hard to keep people safe and healthy. Kids need to know that we have been through illnesses and other tough times before and have remained resilient.
· Script: “I want you to know that there are many grown-ups — like doctors and scientists and healthcare workers, teachers, principals and parents — who are all working hard to keep themselves and others in their care healthy. Even while you are sleeping, people are working to make those who are sick well. All the way around the clock, people are working to keep us all safe. With so many helpful and smart people working on the coronavirus, we will get through this!”
(7) Keep the door open to future questions and concerns: When it comes to tough conversations, whether it’s about sex, porn, drugs or the coronavirus, it’s usually not one talk but a series of discussions based on new information or developing questions. And while we may not have all the answers to the questions our children ask, we can answer as best we can with the knowledge we have.
· Script: “That’s a good question. From what we know now, the answer is __________.” Or “I imagine a lot of people are wondering the same thing. I don’t know the answer but I will look it up and see if I can find it” or “I don’t think they have determined the answer to that yet but if I hear something or I find the answer, I will let you know as soon as possible.”
Finally, take care of yourself. Remember; children take their cues from the adults in their lives, so be sure to manage your own emotional response to the outbreak. If you are following your children around with wipes in the library, yelling at them to avoid touching anything at Target and venting to friends within earshot about the mounting death toll, you may need to find more productive ways to decompress so you can be present and calm for your children.
Remember; calm begets calm. We may need to adjust our plans and pay special attention to hand-washing and hygiene but we can’t allow fear to keep us from living. And that is a lesson we can apply to any threat now and in the future.