Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus

by Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

The Coronavirus is on everyone’s radar, making the rounds on social media and CNN. Several schools have transitioned to online learning, regulations barring travel and group gatherings have been set in place, crowded cities have become ghost towns, restaurants and bars are “take out” only.

Tom Hanks.
The NBA.
Conferences, events, and parades.
Empty stores, empty halls, empty swing sets.

It has us all wondering: When will it end?

But, inside the virus, lies a silver lining: It’s sparing children. Not only are kids less likely to contract it, but they’re also less likely to suffer from any serious complications if they do. In fact, the vast majority of infected children will exhibit very mild symptoms……if and when they exhibit any symptoms at all.

Still, this doesn’t mean children have no role in its spread. For one thing, germs jump easiest among kids – their tendency to cough without covering their mouths, to refrain from washing their hands, and to share willingly with their peers makes them hotbeds for any contagion. And that means they can pass it on to their parents and, importantly, their grandparents (the population most at risk for complications).

Not only do children have a part in the pandemic, they also have a part in the panic. Chances are, they’re at least somewhat clued into what’s going on as teachers and school administrators worked to emphasize the vitality of hygiene.

So, how should we talk to our kids about the illness? A few of the things to keep in mind include:

Aim to respond rather than react: It’s not just what you tell your children that matters; it’s how you tell them. If we respond instead of react, we can sidestep panic.  Reacting, on the other hand, tends to dysregulate a child’s system and negates the message you’re trying to convey.

Find out what they know: As mentioned above, your child probably knows something. So, ask them what they’ve learned. If they’re in elementary school or higher, they’ve likely discussed accuracies in their classroom and the not-so-accurate on the playground. Once you’re aware of what they’ve already heard, you can help separate fact from fiction.

Let them lead: Some kids may want to know everything about the virus, asking you questions on par with those of a junior microbiologist. Others will nod at whatever you say and then ask if they can go play outside in the dirt. Some may do a bit of both. Whatever pace your child sets, follow it. If they’re not revved up, don’t push the throttle.

Focus on comfort but be real and congruent: Viruses, especially when they’re new, are scary and pretending that they’re not won’t do your child any favors (besides, if you’re telling them that everything is fine while pacing the kitchen or repeatedly sanitizing the house, they’ll see right through the incongruence). On the flip side, assumptions based on fear and “what ifs” can also be problematic. Aim to reassure, be honest, normalize, and admit when you don’t know the answer. Also give your children space to process their worries and refrain from sharing too many details unless they ask you specifically.

Don’t make false promises: It’s tempting to tell children that they are safe and won’t get the virus and that everything will be back to normal in a few weeks. But, in reality, we don’t know that. Instead of giving them promises you can’t keep, help them focus on what they do have power over. Being genuine in your response allows a child to orient to you and that helps you act as an external regulator for their nervous system.

Monitor their internet usage: If your kids are older and have access to the internet, make sure you’re approving the sites they’re visiting. Some sites are accurate and informative; others are designed to encourage fear and overreaction. Point them away from the scare tactics and into the arms of science.

Recognize the important role of the unknown: The great unknown isn’t so great all: Instead, it’s one of the four threats of the brain and known for its ability to dysregulate. The uncertainty shrouding all of this is where the majority of the fear lies: We don’t know what to expect if we’re infected, we don’t know how many people have it or how rapidly it spreads, we don’t know what the world will look like when it’s back open for business.  It’s important to keep this in mind and recognize that children (and adults) are having a normal response to their perceptions.

Let them feel in control: There’s a lot about the coronavirus we can’t control, but much we can. Children need to hear this (if anything, it’ll reinforce the importance of hand-washing). So, make a plan on what to do if someone in your family gets sick, how to handle online learning, and how to maintain connection with others on a planet under quarantine. It’s also a smart idea to reinforce good health habits by encouraging them to get enough sleep, to practice proper hygiene, and to eat their fruits and vegetables. They don’t taste as good as candy, but they do a heck of a lot more for the immune system.

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