How to talk to children about Coronavirus
Fear, uncertainty, and anxiety are bound to be heightened with wide-scale disease outbreaks that are contagious, particularly when they involve a new, previously unknown disease-causing agent, as is the case with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This fear and anxiety can especially affect people already suffering from anxiety, and repeated news cycles about the spread of coronavirus do not help this anxiety.
Children and teens may have a particularly hard time making sense of what’s happening in such a scenario, given their pending brain maturation, their lack of experience, and their inherent suggestibility and vulnerability. Seemingly endless news cycles may feel overwhelming, confusing and scary to a child or teen. Children typically possess lesser abilities to decipher and understand from the news, the extent of risk that a disease outbreak poses to them or to their loved ones and friends. This can create a sense of panic amongst children. This may be more challenging when a child/teen is already suffering from an anxiety disorder or predisposed to feeling more anxious in unusual or new situations.
How a child responds to news of novel coronavirus may depend on several factors, such as 1) age of the child, 2) language/comprehension abilities and developmental level of the child, 3) presence, severity and type of anxiety disorder(s) or other psychiatric conditions, 4) prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self, 5) 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/teen.
Remain calm and reassuring.
- Children will react to and follow your verbal and nonverbal reactions.
- What you say and do about COVID-19, current prevention efforts, and related events can either increase or decrease your children’s anxiety.
- If true, emphasize to your children that they and your family are fine.
- Remind them that you and the adults at their school are there to keep them safe and healthy.
- Let your children talk about their feelings and help reframe their concerns into the appropriate perspective.
Make yourself available.
- Children may need extra attention from you and may want to talk about their concerns, fears, and questions.
- It is important that they know they have someone who will listen to them; make time for them.
- Tell them you love them and give them plenty of affection.
Avoid excessive blaming.
- When tensions are high, sometimes we try to blame someone.
- Keep Explanations Age Appropriate.
- It is important to avoid stereotyping any one group of people as responsible for the virus.
- Bullying or negative comments made toward others should be stopped and reported to the school.
- Be aware of any comments that other adults are having around your family. You may have to explain what comments mean if they are different from the values that you have at home.
Monitor television viewing and social media.
- Limit television viewing or access to information on the Internet and through social media. Try to avoid watching or listening to information that might be upsetting when your children are present.
- Speak to your child about how many stories about COVID-19 on the Internet may be based on rumors and inaccurate information.
- Talk to your child about factual information of this disease—this can help reduce anxiety.
- Constantly watching updates on the status of COVID-19 can increase anxiety—avoid this.
- Be aware that developmentally inappropriate information (i.e., information designed for adults) can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young
- Engage your child in games or other interesting activities instead.
Maintain a normal routine to the extent possible.
- Keep to a regular schedule, as this can be reassuring and promotes physical health.
Be honest and accurate.
- In the absence of factual information, children often imagine situations far worse than reality.
- Don’t ignore their concerns, but rather explain that at the present moment very few people in this country are sick with COVID-19.
- Children can be told this disease is thought to be spread between people who are in close contact with one another—when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
- It is also thought it can be spread when you touch an infected surface or object, which is why it is so important to protect yourself.
- For additional factual information contact a health care practitioner, or check the following websites:
Take Time to Talk
You know your children best. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. However, don’t avoid giving them the information that health experts identify as critical to ensuring your children’s health. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their concerns readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. It is very typical for younger children to ask a few questions, return to playing, then come back to ask more questions.
When sharing information, it is important to make sure to provide facts without promoting a high level of stress, remind children that adults are working to address this concern, and give children actions they can take to protect themselves.
Information is rapidly changing about this new virus—to have the most correct information stay informed by accessing https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
- Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should balance COVID-19 facts with appropriate reassurances that their schools and homes are safe and that adults are there to help keep them healthy and to take care of them if they do get sick. Give simple examples of the steps people take every day to stop germs and stay healthy, such as washing hands. Use language such as “adults are working hard to keep you safe.”
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what will happen if COVID-19 comes to their school or community. They may need assistance separating reality from rumor and fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to prevent germs from spreading.
- Upper middle school and high school students are able to discuss the issue in a more in-depth (adult-like) fashion and can be referred directly to appropriate sources of COVID-19 facts. Provide honest, accurate, and factual information about the current status of COVID-19. Having such knowledge can help them feel a sense of control.
Additional Resources: Coping with Stress During Infectious Diseases
- PBS How to talk with your child about coronavirus
- SAMHSA Talking With Children: TIPS FOR CAREGIVERS, PARENTS, AND TEACHERS DURING INFECTIOUS DISEASE OUTBREAKS
- SAMHSA Coping With Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks
- CDC Manage Anxiety & Stress
- How to talk to your Anxious child
- COVID-19 Lockdown Guide: How to Manage Anxiety and Isolation During Quarantine - ADAA Blog Post, Aarti Gupta, PsyD
- How to Talk to Your Anxious Child or Teen About Coronavirus, ADAA blog post, Richa Bhatia, MD
- ADAA March Triumph E-Newsletter - Managing Coronavirus Anxiety, Personal Stories of Triumph and More...
- Quick Expert Tips to Manage Coronavirus Anxiety Part Two - ADAA video - ADAA members Ken Goodman, LCSW, Drs. Debra Kissen, Reid Wilson, and Sally Winston share expert tips to manage coronavirus anxiety.
- Panic Sells, Calm Saves - ADAA Blog Post - ADAA member Dr. Shane Owens
- Quick Expert Tips and Strategies to Manage Coronavirus Anxiety - ADAA 5 minute Video - ADAA member Dr. Debra Kissen
- Health Anxiety: What Is It and How You Can Overcome It - ADAA Webinar - ADAA board member Ken Goodman, LCSW
- Health Anxiety: What Is It and How to Beat It - ADAA Blog Post - ADAA board member Ken Goodman, LCSW