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How to talk to children about COVID-19

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With diocesan schools closed for the next two weeks, the continued spread of COVID-19 and all the news coverage, many parents are wondering how best to talk to their children about the new coronavirus. 

Here are a few tips to help your child understand and cope with the current situation.

1. Stay calm.

Children take their cues from their parents. When their parents are worried and highly stressed, they become more anxious. Manage your own anxiety. Before talking with your children, think about what you want to say, talk with your spouse, and bounce ideas off each other. Stay calm when discussing the outbreak.

Let your younger kids play with their toys while you’re talking to them. Having something else to focus on helps them stay calm while they listen. On the other hand, don’t try having a conversation with your children if they’re watching TV, playing a videogame, or otherwise engaged in screen-based activities. These are highly distracting and can create major obstacles in communication.

2. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

We want to let our children know we will do everything possible to keep them safe, but we need to be honest. Some things are outside our control. We can’t promise them they won’t get sick or that everyone they know will be fine. If we do, children may lose trust and confidence in us if people do begin to get sick.  

Tell the truth. Lead with this: There is a very low risk children and younger adults will get COVID-19.  According to Dr. Thomas Murray at the Yale School of Medicine, COVID-19 does not appear to cause severe distress in children. Most people who contract COVID-19 will have a fever and flu-like symptoms that will clear after a few days or weeks. The virus can be serious for people who are older or chronically ill; but remind children that older adults in our lives (grandparents, teachers, friends at church) are taking steps to ensure they stay healthy too. During this time of year, especially in larger families, it’s not unusual for someone in the house to be sick, often with a common cold or allergies.  Reassure your kids that you’ll take care of them. Most children will tend to assume things are much worse than they really are if they aren’t given the facts. Being honest with children, even about the risks, will reduce their anxiety.

3. Don’t give too much information.

While we need to be honest, we don’t want to flood our children with too much information. Start by asking kids what they’ve heard and then respond to their concerns. Be factual, general and brief. Then let children ask questions. Kids will ask questions when they’re ready for more information.

Make sure the information you give is age-appropriate. Pre-schoolers don’t need to know about pandemics or community spread. Older children may ask questions to which you don’t have the answers. In those cases, either look for the answers together or tell your kids you’ll find out and get back to them. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers immediately but do follow up with them.  Uncertainty and the unknown fuel anxiety — answers help put things in perspective.

 It’s also important to know what they’re hearing and seeing on TV, online or in conversations around the house. They could become overwhelmed and anxious if there is too much conversation about COVID-19 around them. 

4. Make yourself available.

Keeping on top of daily life can be challenging for all of us. Even as we’re trying to juggle changes in school, work schedules, or widespread cancellations of activities, we need to be continually present and available to our children. Several days after your initial conversation about COVID-19, they still might need to talk through their concerns or ask questions. Make sure you’re touching base with your children at least once a day to see how they’re doing.

5. Teach kids how to prevent the spread of germs.

Knowing specific steps they can take to stay healthy is an important way for children to keep them from feeling out of control. Teach them the proper way to wash their hands (sing “Happy Birthday” twice). Also teach them to wash hands after coming in from outside, after using the bathroom, and before and after meals. Show them how to sneeze or cough into their elbows rather than their hands or the air. Encourage them to keep their immune system strong by eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep and exercising. 

6. Helping children cope.

During this uncertain time, praying together as a family can comfort and encourageme children. Praying for anyone impacted by COVID-19 is a good way to help children feel they can help others.

Children under stress are more likely to start acting out if they aren’t given appropriate outlets for that stress. Being outdoors and exercising reduces anxiety, so if possible and safe, let them play outside. Drawing, constructing or other creative projects are a great way for children to process stress.  Most importantly, make sure children have the opportunity to laugh. Healthy play and laughter are the best ways for children to process anxiety and build resiliency.

Horne is director of clinical services for diocesan Catholic Charities.

Find out more

If your child is extremely worried or prone to anxiety, consider speaking to a counselor. Catholic Charities counselors are providing sessions via teletherapy. To set up an appointment, call 703/425-0109 or 540/371-1124.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020