As COVID-19 continues to become more visible in the United States, I anticipate the rumors and anxieties around the coronavirus will continue to climb. Those anxieties and tensions will, no doubt, be felt by our children. Given my experience in school administration having difficult conversations about various public crises with parents, teachers, and students, I wanted to offer some suggestions on how to talk with your children about the coronavirus pandemic.
Start by inviting a conversation with your children. Ask them what they’ve heard about and think about the coronavirus. Let them know, this will be an ongoing conversation, and as things develop, you want them to know they can come to you with any questions or concerns they might have.
As you talk with your children, they might share with you some of the fears they are holding around coronavirus. Do not outright reject their fears. They have a right to their worries and feelings, just like you. Of course, you will likely have your own, hopefully, a more informed perspective that you can share to help them better understand the reality of what’s going on.
As you talk with them about coronavirus, it’s important to be honest and use age-appropriate language. For example, you can share with your children that the coronavirus is a virus and you can talk about how it’s transmitted. You can let them know that most people won’t catch this virus but that some will. You can let them know that most of the people that catch this virus will recover. And you can talk about how this will likely lead to some disruptions in their day-to-day lives over the coming weeks and maybe months. Those disruptions might take the form of taking special precautions to help protect grandma and grandpa. And, those disruptions might also look like minimizing attendance at social gatherings like birthday parties and church functions.
It’s also important to talk with your children about the many things that are being done to help keep them and those they care about safe. You can share some of the specific things you and the family are doing to help keep them safe. You can share the steps their school and other community organizations are doing to help keep them safe. You can talk about things the government and healthcare systems are doing to help keep them safe.
You should also talk with your children about the things they can do to reduce their chances of contracting the coronavirus. For example, talk to them about the proper way to wash their hands and how they need to be washing their hands many times throughout the day. You can talk with them about the importance of keeping their hands away from their face and covering their mouth when they sneeze/cough.
Children are very attuned to the emotional status of their households. Keep that in mind as you have these conversations. I would suggest you invest time in finding reliable, non-emotionally charged information about the coronavirus. Johns Hopkins has a daily email you can sign up for that helps provide a daily report on the status of coronavirus. Given the emotional attunement children have with their families, it’s also important to talk to your children about coronavirus in a calm, thoughtful, reassuring voice.
Lastly, as with all things related to parenting, it’s important to avoid shaming and blaming language. In my experience, that kind of language can be damaging to children’s current and future wellbeing. Let your children know that this virus isn’t anyone’s fault and those that catch this virus are not bad because they caught the virus.
One of the things I like to use as a guide for how to interact with children during difficult times is the example that Mister Rogers set when he came out of retirement to talk to America’s children after the September 11th attacks. His example is an example for all of us in how to communicate with children… in an honest, clear, direct, age-appropriate, and very calm way.