Constructively Communicating with Children about COVID-19 by Steven Sust, M.D.

Imagine a 9-year-old child comes home from school and asks about the “new coronavirus that came from eating a bat in China”. He seems nervous in asking about whether he can get it since everybody is being told to stay at home and stay away from one another. This child asks what’s going to happen to him if he gets sick and then everyone else gets sick too. What should any trusted adult say in this situation?

The COVID-19 virus has disproportionately affected many countries who have been scrambling to activate emergency containment responses across the globe. While families can find daily national and international updates, the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing wants to highlight resources for families to have constructive conversations about COVID-19. Although children thus far appear to have less overall risk from COVID-19, it’s important for parents to hear children’s concerns and perspectives about COVID-19. Parents might consider:

1.  Making time: For a serious public health pandemic like COVID-19, even while trying to balance work for home with educating/supporting our children, parents might try to find time for undivided attention to speaking with and listening to the concerns of their school-aged children.

2.  Inquire to understand: Calmly listen to what your children have been hearing about COVID-19 without trying to correct them. In addition to getting a sense of their understanding around different aspects of COVID-19, the goal is to also understand the root of any concerns your children might have.

3.  Be non-judgmental: Parents should try to validate feelings of unease or anxiety, especially if families have had prior experiences with other ill or deceased family members. Although emotional reactions can vary, it’s also not uncommon for children to not have any associated emotional reactions yet.

4.  Problem-based learning: It’s okay to not know the answer to your child’s questions and particularly important to share if something is not known. If there are any areas of uncertainty about COVID-19 (origins, signs/symptoms, at-risk populations, etc.) then parents should jointly research questions together with their children. Using authoritative COVID-19 resources from the medical community and its respective organizations, jot down useful facts and bookmark sites that can be reviewed again later.

5.  Changing patterns: Parents might focus on the individual actions we can all take to limit the risk of contagion to loved ones and the larger community.  For example, consider reviewing rigorous hand-washing techniques and social distancing, which can help prevent further spreading of COVID-19.

6.  Early help-seeking: Parents and children can have a discussion about other trusted adults for children to know who to talk to if they have additional questions and their guardians aren’t available. It’s important for children to know that there are other adults in their lives who will help find answers.

Although COVID-19 represents a public health crisis for the global community, it is also a defining moment for all of our families. As such, there may be value in viewing this time at home as an opportunity to not only spend more time with our children, but to review and refocus our family’s priorities. This is also a critical time for us to discuss at home how our individual, family and social actions potentially impact the greater good and why that’s important, and to use this time as an opportunity to build additional connection and resilience across our world.

For additional resources:
Talking to Children About Coronavirus (COVID19)
Helping Children Cope Emotionally with the Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Talking to Children About COVID-19 (Coronavirus): A Parent Resource
Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope With the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
How to Talk with Kids About COVID-19
Resources to Support Mental Health and Coping with the Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Helping children cope with stress during the 2019-nCoV outbreak
Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools
Multilingual COVID-19 resources