Communicating with your Child about COVID-19

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Article Written By: Judy Rooney, LCSW, Tri-State Clearwater Medical

Seemingly endless news cycles about the coronavirus may feel overwhelming, confusing, and scary to a child or youth. Children may lack the ability to decipher and understand the news, the extent of the risk that a disease outbreak poses to them, their family, and the community. Many times as parents and loved ones of children, we want to protect them from the situation, in an effort to reduce their fear and distress. However, children are perceptive and pick up many cues from those around them.

How a child responds to news of the virus may depend on several factors, such as the age of the child, language/comprehension abilities, developmental level of the child, presence of an anxiety disorder, or other psychiatric conditions, prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self, and occurrence of other recent stressors or major life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, major move, change of school, etc.). Therefore, a parent’s response would need to be tailored to the individual situation and context surrounding their child.

The following are a few general tips for communicating with an anxious child/youth about COVID-19.

Model Calmness
The most important and impactful form of communication to your child is your own behavior. Children typically tend to be perceptive and sensitive to the behavior of others in their surroundings. If you and other adults in the household are acting and behaving calmly, you are sending a clear message to your child that there is no need to panic or worry. For this, you would need to watch and monitor your own feelings and reactions. Children can sense their parents’ anxiety even when parents are not voicing or expressing their anxiety related thoughts or fears. Carving a few minutes for yourself for mindful breathing pauses during the day may help you model calm for your child.

Limit and Monitor News and Media Exposure
The vast majority of children and adolescents in the US (and in large parts of the world) watch hours of TV and other media daily. Limiting and monitoring the exposure to news cycles can be one step towards helping them regulate their anxiety. The younger the child, the greater their need for limiting exposure to news. For older children too, parental monitoring and guidance to help navigate the confusing and often scary news about COVID-19, is needed.

Maintain Normalcy
Significant changes to daily routines or schedules are stressful for children and convey that you are very concerned or there is a crisis. Try adhering to usual routines and schedules in the household as much as possible. Consistency in this area is key. With school closures, helping your child have structure during the day, may help anxiety. Sitting around idle without a plan for the day is likely to escalate anxiety. Check out this website of ideas for cool projects for elementary kids: https://www.pbs.org/parents.

Listen Actively
Listen to their feelings, worries, fears, and questions about COVID-19. Children may receive their news from the internet, TV, home, or elsewhere. They could worry that the worst may happen to them, their friends, and loved ones. Ask questions in a non-judgmental and empathetic manner. Show them that you are present and interested in hearing their thoughts and feelings. This will make it easier for your child to approach you with their thoughts and feelings in the future as well.

Children may have heard news about deaths from COVID-19. For older children who are more likely to understand the concept of death and its finality, you can educate them that most people do not die from this disease, rather, most get better. Regardless of the age of your child, if your child asks specific questions about deaths from COVID-19, do not avoid those; ask them what they think and know, and explain to them the facts in a simple way that is digestible for their age and developmental level, and is situationally appropriate. Ask them further about their concerns. Let them know that you are available if they want to talk further or have any questions.

A few examples of digestible phrases might sound like:

  • “COVID-19 is an illness called a virus”
  • “It is spread by germs that are shared between people”
  • “Some people may get very sick and others may not feel sick at all”

Remember it’s OK to say, “I don’t know” and explain that we are learning more about this virus every day

Validate
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Be careful not to dismiss, invalidate, make fun of, or reject their feelings. You may also inform them that it is common to feel this way; many other people (including children) experience similar feelings. Many people worry that validating their child’s feelings would mean they are agreeing with those and that this may further increase those feelings. Validating someone’s feelings does not mean you agree with the beliefs underlying those feelings, but, it means you acknowledge the presence of those feelings and that you understand that such feelings are a part of the human experience. Validating is very powerful, as it helps the person to feel understood. This is especially important for children as they rely on and check with parents and teachers to make sense of their emotional experiences, particularly experiences or situations that are new or unusual for them. Validation can help them feel calmer and enhance the child’s ability to process their emotions. Frequent invalidation can lead them to be confused about or doubt their own feelings as they grow up, and may contribute to low self-esteem, or sense of self, besides potentially affecting or even rupturing your relationship with them in the long-term.

Help Practice Relaxation Strategies
Relaxation strategies that are mindfulness based may help your child feel calmer, this includes various movement and cognitive activities, including kids’ yoga! Check out these websites and get together as a family and give them a try.

They are more effective if practiced regularly. Most mindfulness exercises, be it mindful breathing, mindful walking or mindful eating, involve non-judgmental noticing, and practicing being in the present moment.

Practice Compassion
Wide scale infectious disease outbreaks, such as the current one, are bound to be stressful and can be challenging to maneuver. This can be particularly apparent when they start to affect daily life and activities; more so, if your child suffers from anxiety. It’s important to practice being kind, gentle, and compassionate to yourself and to your children.

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