March 5, 2020

What parents can tell children about coronavirus

Dad sits on floor next to young girl on couch, holding her hand for comfort

When even adults are anxious, what you can do to calm children’s worries. Learn what to tell your children about coronavirus.

In the still-evolving spread of coronavirus (officially called COVID-19), uncertainty is all around us. As challenging as it may be to manage our own worries, those of us who are parents, educators or healthcare professionals must also find ways to meet the needs of our children as they wait, wonder and ask questions.

Mentions of the increasingly global spread of coronavirus are on every television and radio broadcast. They come up in lunchroom conversations, youth group gatherings and when even very young children are listening. As frightening as things may feel, children are often able to cope with fear in ways far beyond what adults would expect – if they are presented with the right support.

So, surrounded by news of this virus, what do children need to understand, cope and thrive? Essentially they need three things:

Provide open and honest information

Although it can be difficult to have open and honest conversations, children – much like adults – are better able to cope with things they understand, rather than misconceptions they may fear. Explaining the most urgent details may tame anxiety in your children. It’s important to use accurate terminology, like “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” paired with understandable concepts, such as “a type of sickness that people can get from germs.” Typically, children around and over the age of 6 can understand illness as something communicable through germs that we cannot overtly see. Younger children often have misconceptions about the origins of illness and might believe in illness as a sort of punishment for bad behavior. Thus, it is important to stress that the coronavirus is no one’s fault and that sometimes these things happen without a clear cause. For all ages, it is also important to balance information about the illness with information about community response. Reassure your child that healthcare providers, schools and other groups are working to help prevent people from becoming sick, and to take care of those who become ill.

Giving children opportunities to talk and ask questions can help them feel supported, loved and able to trust their caregivers when they feel vulnerable. However, it can also be helpful to limit children’s exposure to news coverage, especially when you’re not watching the news with them. Instead, make time to talk about the news together as children’s questions arise. In addition, turning off the television and limiting computer time can also help give children a greater sense of control.

Encourage playtime

Play is the most important resource of childhood. Playing not only helps children feel safe and secure, but gives them an outlet to share thoughts and feelings that are difficult to describe with words. Play helps children communicate their needs, work through their fears and create coping skills. So although play may not be high on our own to-do lists, providing a child with time and resources for play can foster the resiliency they will need to manage stress throughout their lifetimes. Maybe we adults should make more time for play, too. You might find that a card game, drawing or listening to a favorite song can be calming and help you gain perspective during an anxious time.

Create an action plan

Children need to know that actions are being taken to ensure and maintain their own safety. Creating a family response plan can help the child feel a sense of control over future incidents by identifying what steps will be taken and by whom. Some children may benefit from helping to design and stock a “wellness bag” with useful items in case coronavirus or other illness strikes close to home. Empower children to make choices about what items to include; those items might range from favorite toys and hand sanitizer to chicken noodle soup and tissues. Children benefit from finding ways to turn their feelings and fears into concrete actions. Encouraging children to wash their hands frequently or cover their coughs and sneezes gives them a task they can do – often, every day – that not only helps prevent coronavirus and other illnesses but gives them the sense that they have some control. It can also be helpful to remind them of the importance of eating well, drinking water, and getting enough sleep to help their bodies stay healthy and safe.

Despite the news of a confirmed coronavirus case in Middle Tennessee, even very young children can cope with the worries that might cause, if they have opportunities to talk with supportive adults and process their feelings in familiar ways. If you or your child want additional help talking about or coping with these fears, contact your healthcare provider or mental health professional.

This post was written by Jessika Boles, PhD, CCLS, a certified Child Life Specialist for the Pediatric Critical Care Unit at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.