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Talking to your kids about the coronavirus

By Kate Hobbs Knutson, MD, MPH | April 8, 2020 | 4 min read | Coronavirus

Family discussion at the breakfast table

How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

This is a scary and uncertain time for adults. The fear and loss of control we feel as the coronavirus spreads across the globe? Our kids feel it, too.

The parenting guides didn’t prepare us for this. There is no instruction manual on talking to children about a global pandemic.

A lot of parents are wondering what to say. How can we communicate the risks of COVID-19 without causing needless fear?

As a child psychiatrist and as a mom of two young kids, I’ve been asking myself the same question. Here are a few thoughts.

Be open to questions.

Let your kids know that you’re available to them and willing to answer their questions. Whether they’re hearing about the virus from their friends or from the news, they will be looking to you for answers.

Our kids worry more when they are kept in the dark. It can help to set aside time daily or weekly to talk about what’s going on. Provide a safe space for them to share their concerns. Many kids will wonder whether they are going to get sick, or whether their friends and family members will be safe.

Be prepared to answer basic questions about the virus – what it feels like, how it spreads – in simple terms. You might say something like: “These are germs. They spread when you are near someone who is sick, or when you touch something that has the germs on it and then touch your face.”

Be clear and honest. Keep the conversation at an age-appropriate level.

Be thoughtful about your kids’ exposure to news.

The CDC recommends reducing screen time. They also suggest reminding your kids that some of what they see on social media might not be true. Consuming news on social media can negatively affect your kids’ mental health. It’s important to talk with your kids about what they’re viewing on social media.

Our family has also made a conscious decision to keep the TV turned off during the day. We still keep up with the news, but we don’t allow it to be constant background noise in our home.

Instead, we build fun and normalcy into our daily routine as much as possible. In between virtual learning sessions for school, we are spending a lot of time outdoors. My older son is getting better at basketball. My younger son just learned to ride a bike. Fun games or simple activities like coloring pages for kids can bring a sense of normalcy back into your kids’ lives.

Through these activities, kids can build resiliency and feel effective and strong. This balances against the fear and sadness that may surround them.

Explain the steps you’re taking to keep them safe.

One way to provide reassurance is to focus on the actions you’re taking to keep your kids and your family safe.

We wash our hands for 20 seconds.

We cover our mouths with our elbows when we sneeze or cough.

Our family is staying at home, away from people who are sick.

We follow the rules that the doctors set to help us stay healthy.

Reminding your kids about the steps you’re taking to minimize risk will help everyone feel safer and more in control.

And remember to take care of yourself, too. The Child Mind Institute offers lots of great resources and support for parents and families navigating this difficult time.