How To Talk To Your Child About The Coronavirus

If you’re struggling as a parent to explain the coronavirus pandemic to your child, you’re not alone. Here are some tips for parents on how to discuss COVID-19 with kids and the precautions needed.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 14 min read

How To Talk To Your Child About The Coronavirus

With a number of school closure announcements, and the news of the coronavirus spread and fatalities related to it dominating headlines, there is an increasing fear about COVID-19. This fast spreading virus is staring at us on our social media feeds; the message on the ringtone of our phones when we make a call reminds us about precautions we need to take to fight the virus; it has led to travel restrictions, cancelled events and banning of mass gatherings across the world.

In this scenario, protecting ourselves and our children has become a top priority. But equally important is talking to children about the coronavirus pandemic, addressing their anxieties, the misinformation they are likely to be exposed to, and any insecurities they may be experiencing.

With the coronavirus spreading to every continent across the globe, there is simply no way you can avoid talking to your children about it. Having these conversations sooner will also ensure that you are your child’s trusted source of information.

Here’s what you can do to inform, educate and reassure your child about the COVID-19 virus and what we can all do to take care of ourselves and stop its spread.

Stuck at home due to the COVID-19 Pandemic? Family-In-Corona-Out is here to help you beat the blues! 

1. Educate yourself
Before you talk to your child about the coronavirus, it is important that you gather objective and reliable information about the coronavirus and how it is transmitted.
First, educate yourself about the virus.

  • How is the disease transmitted?
  • How does it affect the infected person?

Then, list out all your fears and worries.

  • If I send my child to school or the playground, will she contract the disease?
  • Is my family at greater risk for the virus than others?

Next, find out what measures you could take to keep your family safe.

  • Should we avoid crowded places?
  • How to ensure my children wash their hands?
  • Is it safe to travel?

Get your information from trustworthy sources such as the World Health Organisation website or the National Centre for Disease Control India website. Guard against scams and fake news related to the disease.

How To Talk To Your Child About The Coronavirus

2. Keep your own emotions in check

While talking to your child about the coronavirus, try not to show your anxiety as this will only add to her concerns. When you tell your child, “You must wear a mask. If you don’t, you will get infected,” you are communicating your anxiety to your child and making it difficult for him to maintain a healthy emotional state.

3. Find out what your child already knows
Talk to your child about the coronavirus when you and your child are feeling relaxed and aren’t tired or rushed. It is a good idea to have this discussion as a series of conversations, rather than one lengthy explanation. Use a tone that is objective and straightforward.

Ask your child open-ended questions to understand what she knows and feels about the issue.

  • What have you heard about the coronavirus?
  • What do you know about how it spreads?
  • What are the precautions being taken at your school?

For older children, you might ask:

  • What are your friends saying about the coronavirus?
  • Did you read something on the Internet about it?

Let your child drive the conversation.

4. Respond to questions in an age-appropriate manner

Answer whatever questions your child may have, but don’t overwhelm him with too much information. Avoid giving more details than what he is interested in. Provide facts about what has happened, explain what is going on now, and give your child clear information about how to reduce her risk of being infected by the virus using age-appropriate words. With younger children, you can say something like this:

There is a new virus that has been discovered, for which we don’t have any vaccines or medicines yet. A lot of people could get sick because of it. But the good news is that we can take precautions to prevent it from spreading.

With older children, have open and calm conversations. Beware of where and how they get information, especially with children who are active online. Point them to reliable and age-appropriate sources of information, so they don’t end up getting exposed to news that could be incorrect or disturbing. In case you’re not able to answer a question your child asks, do your research together to find the answers.

5. Listen and reassure
Assess if your child has any fears and worries. She may wonder:

  • Could I be next?
  • What will happen if my parents or grandparents get it?

Understand your child’s feelings as you observe her or listen to her complaints:

  • Why can’t I go to school?
  • Why can’t I play water Holi?

Each child might have their own concerns and worries, depending on what they have been exposed to in school, social media, or elsewhere. If your child does express worry, don’t brush it aside by saying things like:

  • Oh, really there’s nothing to worry about
  • It is happening only in China

Instead, it is important to listen to him and acknowledge his worries:
I know it sounds scary. Looks like you are worried that one of us may fall sick

Next, speak in a calm a manner and reassure your child:

  • You are safe with me.
  • Illness due to the COVID-19 infection is generally mild, especially for children and young people.
  • There will be an end to this outbreak and our life will return to normal.
  • A lot of people are working to develop vaccines and medicines, and we will be able to contain the virus.
  • Many people who are infected will recover and many have recovered already,

Offer objective and age-appropriate information, to correct whatever (mis)information your child might have. Keep the TV news switched off to avoid unnecessary anxiety in your child. 

How To Talk To Your Child About The Coronavirus

6. Spend time with your child
Your child may experience loneliness if his classes have been cancelled, or if he is asked to avoid getting together with friends to prevent the spread of the virus. Spend time playing with your child to prevent him from feeling isolated. Young children often express their feelings and emotions through play. By playing with your child, you can help her experience your care, relieve her anxiety, and improve her sense of safety.

For older children, particularly if they are feeling lonely due to lack of interaction with their classmates, spend time connecting as a family. Encourage your child to keep in touch with friends via phone calls or messaging online.

If you’re home-bound, brainstorm with your child and make a list of enjoyable things to do. Infuse fun into your regular household chores and get your child involved in helping around the house.

7. Help your child take charge
Give your child information that helps him feel in control. Talk about the precautions you can take as a family:

  • Wash hands with soap thoroughly
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Sneeze/cough into our elbows
  • Greet people with a namaste instead of a handshake
  • Don’t share water bottles or utensils
  • Stay home when you don’t feel well
  • Get adequate sleep

However, it is not necessary to be hyper-vigilant and convey a sense of alarm. Instead, keep the fun factor going while your child takes care of herself:

  • Take a family challenge to not touch one’s face.
  • Have your child sing the happy birthday song while he washes his hands thoroughly for the entire duration of the song.

The more you involve your child in planning and preparedness, the more she will feel in control. Ned Johnson, co-author of The Self-Driven Child, in an exclusive conversation with ParentCircle, says, “Doing things to increase our sense of control can be a source of future resilience.”

You can also use this opportunity to inculcate good habits in your child - habits such as washing hands with soap before meals or after playing outside, eating healthy and getting good sleep.

8. Keep your messages positive
Talk about all the efforts being made in your city or country to keep people safe and healthy. Reassure your child that organisations and individuals are involved in developing vaccines and medication to contain the virus, that the hospitals are prepared to treat people who fall sick, and everyone the world over is working together to look after each other. Give examples of success stories, such as the recent cases in Kerala that are now on their way to recovery, due to an early action plan, dedicated teamwork, and political determination.

If your child is unable to visit their grandparent because they’re sick, or if you decide to keep away from Holi celebrations with others, you can explain that these decisions are a part of their social responsibility to protect others and be a good community member.

Additionally, you can help your child reach out to his grandparent:
Your grandma is making an effort to get better and she is ensuring she isn’t exposed to the virus. We can help her feel cheerful. Would you like to draw her a card? Would you like to have a video chat with her?

You can also help your child deal with the disappointment of not playing water Holi with his friends:
We can’t play Holi with water colours this time, but we can have a mini family celebration in our balcony with dry colours. Would you also like to make a rangoli with me? Or make thandai together?

Reminding your child that we’re all in this together goes a long way in providing reassurance and helping your child cope with any insecurity or disappointment.

Yes, there is a sense of panic in the media, and in the neighbourhoods and in the minds of people around you. But, don’t let that overwhelm you and your child with a sense of anxiety. Instead, educate yourself, have age-appropriate conversations with your child to reassure him that the virus spread is a temporary phenomenon and most people will not be affected by it. Be alert, aware and cautious. Keep your child and family safe and healthy.

In a nutshell

  • Have conversations with your child about the coronavirus when both of you are feeling relaxed and let your child drive the conversation
  • Provide facts, explain what is going on now, and give your child clear information about how to reduce her risk of being infected by the virus in an age-appropriate manner
  • If your child expresses worry, listen to him and acknowledge his worries
  • Help your child take charge. The more you involve your child in planning and preparedness, the more she will feel in control
  • Keep your messages positive. Use this as an opportunity to teach children about good, healthy habits

What you can do right away

  • Gather objective information on COVID-19 from reliable sources
  • Brainstorm with your child on what precautions you need to take as a family
  • Stay calm. Keep your own emotions in check while talking to your child about the coronavirus so you don’t make your child more anxious

About the author:

Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 10 March 2020; updated on 25 March 2020

Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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