One thing to know about kids is that they hear everything. If they’re in the room, even if they’re preoccupied or seem to be doing something else, they pay a lot of attention to what the adults in the room are saying. You need to assume that your kids have heard your own anxieties about COVID-19.
This is a situation where information is rapidly changing, but psychologists know a lot about managing child anxiety. This is what we do know:
Kids have a strong need to feel safe. In the case of COVID-19, all the evidence we do see points to children being outside the danger zone – there have been very few cases of children getting the virus, and the cases that doctors have seen have been mild.
Ask your children what they have heard, and fill in the gaps. Again, because this situation is changing so rapidly, you might not have all the answers. Be open to more questions later on, and leave the door open whenever they want to talk. Kids don’t always process information in one shot, so it’s normal if they come back later and pick up the conversation.
Fill in gaps.
Here’s some information you can give your children: that this is a disease that has symptoms similar to the flu. It comes with a cough, fever, and wheezing. These are symptoms that they’re probably familiar with, so it can sound a lot less scary. Anchoring the unknown (COVID-19) in a disease that they are probably familiar with (the flu) can help them process the information and ground them.
If you lie to your children, they won’t trust you. You can talk about the danger in a way that focuses on the parts of the situation that we can control. You can emphasize that most people to get sicker from the coronavirus are older. Kids might ask – and worry – about the older people in their lives. Again, focus on safety. That 98% of people get well. That it seems like 80% of cases are mild. That the people who do get sick are much older and who are already not so healthy. Talk to kids about how doctors are working very hard to track the spread of the disease, and that anyone who feels sick can call a doctor and get help.
Talk about what they CAN do.
Focus on the practical steps that they can do to help stop the spread of the disease. Though, again, this coronavirus is mild in children, we know that it spreads from person to person through coughing and touch, so there are some practical things that they can do to keep the people around them safe. Experts have stressed hand washing – for 20 whole seconds – with soap and water. They should wash their hands after going to the bathroom, before eating, or after being in a crowded place like school, the playground, or a store. Remind them to keep their hands away from their face, and sneeze into their elbow or a tissue (and then throw away the tissue!).
Model these skills.
If you’re saying all the right things, but having a lot of trouble managing your own anxiety, your kids will pick up on that. If you’re speaking to your spouse or friends about all the things that can go wrong, or the latest school closure, death, or diagnosis, your kids will hear you and it will impact them. Your job is to show them that you’re doing what you CAN do – by remaining calm and washing your hands. Follow the advice of medical professionals, and, if you need to, turn off the news and stay away from social media.
Remind kids of their role.
Remind kids that they’re kids. It’s not their job to solve this problem. That’s what adults are for, and doctors are working hard to find a treatment. There are plenty of helpers around to worry about this for them.
Know when to seek extra help.
This last point is for both parents and their children. Be on the lookout for anxiety that is getting in the way of everyday functioning. This might show up as a behavior change, or your children regressing after they’ve already met a developmental stage. If you or your children are having trouble with this anxiety, therapy may be able to help. Specifically, look for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is an effective, skills based method of managing anxiety.