“If even ONE student in my ENTIRE school gets sick with the coronavirus, they’re going to call off school for EVERYONE,” my nine-year-old son announced to me the other day. “Why is everyone talking about this so much?” He’s right on both accounts—they will probably close his school (even if a student doesn’t test positive for the disease), and it’s all anyone is talking about everywhere we go.
By this point, if you haven’t already, it’s important to talk to your kids about this coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Their friends are talking about it, their sports and activities are getting cancelled because of it, and they’re hearing the latest news about it on the TV in the dentist’s office. It’s all around us—figuratively and literally—and even if they’re not asking questions, they very likely have some. And what they’re hearing or imagining on their own may be worse than the reality.
“We recommend that parents are the ones who consume the news and give their kids information that is factual and not so emotional or exaggerated,” says Dr. Jamie Howard, director of trauma and resilience service at the Child Mind Institute, in this video:
How to start the conversation
Like any serious topic, you’ll want to have this conversation with your kids in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. If you’re not sure where to start, simply ask them what they’ve heard about the coronavirus (because, again, they’ve heard something) and if they have any questions. They may have a lot of fears and questions or they may just be mildly curious.
Follow their lead and let them know they can always come to you later if they think of a question or want more information.
Acknowledge their anxiety
If they seem at all anxious about the virus, it’s important to acknowledge and normalise that, psychologist and author Lisa Damour writes for the New York Times:
Adults can help young people appreciate that healthy anxiety has a purpose: It alerts us to potential threats and helps us move toward safety. “Feeling some anxiety,” we might say calmly, “makes sense right now. You’re having the right reaction to the emerging news about the coronavirus.”
From there, we can encourage teenagers to channel their discomfort into useful action.
It’s also important to make sure you’re managing your own anxiety about the coronavirus—your kids will be looking to you for cues about how worried to be, and you can model a healthy balance by being serious and concerned about it while still remaining calm.
Emphasise what you’re doing to stay safe
An important thing for kids—and adults—to keep in mind is that although this is a highly contagious disease, we can still protect ourselves by doing some fairly basic and easy things: washing our hands thoroughly, avoiding touching our faces, disinfecting shopping cart handles or high-touch areas of our homes, avoiding people who are coughing or sneezing, and stocking up on some supplies.
Kids can feel empowered by knowing what safety precautions the whole family can take to help keep everyone healthy.
Find ways for them to be ‘helpers’
Kids are natural helpers at heart, and this coronavirus isn’t an individual problem—it’s a community problem. Which means there are things they can do to ease the burden of those most affected by the spread of the disease. When my son and I went out to dinner recently, I couldn’t help but think that it might be the last time we ate out for a while, which in turn made me realise our server might be temporarily out of work soon.
I explained to my son how we’re lucky that both my husband and I can work from home, but that some people have jobs that aren’t as flexible and that some of those people may have to go without pay for a while. If you’re also in this lucky group, you can show your kids how to help—by leaving an extra big tip. It’s a good opportunity to talk about how people in a community can help each other in times of crisis.
Kids can also give an emotional boost to older relatives who may be self-quarantined at home or in a nursing home or other facility that is not allowing visitors. They can help cheer them up with regular phone calls or video calls to break up their day.
And you can also explain that by washing our hands thoroughly and avoiding touching our faces, we are also helping others. We’re protecting ourselves from the virus, which is great, but we’re also helping to stop the spread of the disease, which means we’re protecting those who are more vulnerable to complications from it. So every time they scrub those hands for 20 seconds, they’re actually doing a good deed.