With many of the world’s people confined to their homes amid efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, families are finding themselves spending more time than ever together.
For many, this is an unexpected opportunity to connect with spouses, children and siblings. But one question has come bubbling up: How should adult caregivers be talking about coronavirus to the children in their lives?
Coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, dominate headlines and our conversations which, in turn, can pass on our anxieties to children trying to understand what is happening and why they are suddenly isolated from their friends, extended family and regular routines.
According to UNICEF, children “can be particularly vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness” during such a crisis, which makes it important that the adults in their lives provide a safe, reliable space to discuss these feelings in.
The tools you should use to talk to children about coronavirus are very similar to how you should talk to them about any other development in their lives.
Listen to them
It is important to first understand how much your child knows about the pandemic, so ask them open-ended questions and listen carefully.
Listen to them fully, with no distractions, but allow them to undertake a soothing activity like colouring if they are more comfortable that way. Make sure they know they can speak to you or any other adult in their life whenever they need to.
Do not dismiss their concerns, even with reassuring statements such as: “No, that would never happen,” or “Don’t worry about that.” Acknowledge their concerns fully and honestly, and tell them there are countless adults working hard to try to end this.
If your child is very young and does not know about the pandemic, you may not need to bring it up yet, just take this as an opportunity to stress the importance of good hygiene – and go back to colouring together.
Be honest with them
Honesty and accuracy can go a long way to helping children come to terms with what they hear, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It is important to provide children with information, but as their caregiver, you need to balance truthfulness with what is appropriate for their age and developmental level.
“Use age-appropriate language, watch their reactions, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety,” UNICEF advised.
If the child asks a question you do not know the answer to, take it as an opportunity to explore together. Children do not actually need to think the adults in their lives know everything, and researching the answers together is a good opportunity to inform them about what reliable sources of information are out there.
A word of caution – do not spend too much time on this as it can increase a child’s anxiety. Keep an eye on their level of focus, breathing patterns and any signs of agitation as a cue to wrap up.
Maintain structure in their lives
Children need structure now as much as they ever did, even if they are not physically going to school or attending extracurricular activities.
“Keep regular routines and schedules as much as possible, especially before they go to sleep, or help create new ones in a new environment,” UNICEF said.
Maintaining a routine tells a child that life has not really changed that much, and that reassurance helps them cope with the things that have changed.
Children are also likely to react to adults’ stress levels, so make sure you take time to do some relaxing activities on your own to keep your own anxieties in check.
Finally, take time to play together as much as possible; this keeps children feeling connected and secure.
Avoid stigma, share kindness
When talking to children about coronavirus, it is important to avoid language that can lead to assumptions blaming others for the situation. This is likely best done by being as matter-of-fact as possible, and presenting as balanced an image as you can.
Explain to children that the illness has nothing to do with what someone looks like or where they come from. Viruses can make anyone sick, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Try to ask if the child has experienced, witnessed, or contributed to coronavirus bullying. Use neutral questions, such as: “Have you heard anyone saying one of the kids in your class is making others sick? Why do you think they said that about him/her?”
With so much negativity to tackle, you will enjoy an opportunity to share heart-warming stories with your child.
Tell them about the health workers risking their lives, the scientists working around the clock, the volunteers bringing groceries and having conversations through plate-glass windows with elderly quarantined people.
You can also encourage them to reach out to grandparents or far-away aunts and uncles more often, using video chat applications. If your child is a fan of crafts projects, you can put them to work making cards for everyone in the extended family, that way they too can take part in spreading some kindness and love.
Make hygiene precautions fun
Most children are not fans of standing for 20 seconds while they wash their hands, but we know it has to be done, especially after going to the toilet, before and after eating, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose.
Try to make it fun, sing a few verses of a nursery rhyme or do a little dance with them to help them count down.
A points system, praise, or a gold star will also go a long way towards encouraging younger children to cough or sneeze into their elbows or into a tissue they dispose of right away.