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Talking to Young Children about COVID-19

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After being in lockdown for 30+ days, the idea of talking to young children about Covid-19 again may feel asinine. 

I would have agreed with you a week ago.

I have had high level family discussions, the non-stop media coverage, and homeschool becoming the norm... surely I had all bases covered. But I didn't, and seeing the concern in my child's eyes for me simply going to the mailbox made me realize that I need to check in and communicate frequently on our new world and on his level. 

Meet our Experts: Mina Yadegar, Psy.D. and Joshua Masse, Ph.D. clinical child psychologists from the Boston Child Study Center (BCSC) – Los Angeles

The Boston Child Study Center (BCSC) is a treatment, training and research center dedicated to improving the lives of children, adolescents, young adults, and families. Together Dr. Mina Yadegar and Dr. Joshua Masse layout communication tools to help parents better explain Covid-19. 

Read their amazing article below!

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Talking to Young Children about COVID-19

By Mina Yadegar, Psy.D.and Joshua Masse, Ph.D.

 

If you are uncertain or nervous about talking about COVID-19 to your children, you are not alone. Many parents are feeling understandably anxious and unsure as well.  First, know that your child has probably heard about coronavirus; they are overhearing adult conversations, other children are talking about it, and schools have likely addressed it.  In addition, when children are not informed, they often imagine the worst case scenarios.  Thus, having an open conversation about COVID-19 allows them to have factual information, and for you, the opportunity to focus on what information would be most helpful for them.

We all have waves of anxiety during this time.  Children absorb anxiety and fear from their caregivers, and depend on the adults around them to assess the severity of a situation.  Try to talk to your child about COVID-19 when you feel calm and you can give your child your full attention.

 

Invite a conversation about coronavirus where your child takes the lead

In a kind and calm voice ask your child what they know about the coronavirus, and allow your child to take the lead on the conversation.  This allows for your child to share what they have heard and ask questions.  In response, you are able to correct any inaccurate information without providing too much information that may trigger anxiety.  For very young children, it is often helpful to have this conversation at eye level.

Try to answer questions in a transparent way that is developmentally appropriate, and balance facts with reassurance that you and other adults are doing their best to keep kids safe.  Depending on the age of your child, some facts that may be helpful to share are what the coronavirus is and its main symptoms.  We can provide reassurance that these symptoms are mild for most people who have had coronavirus, especially for kids, and also that kids are less likely to contract coronavirus.  We can also inform children that you and other adults are doing their best to keep everyone safe.  For example, “Coronavirus is a germ that makes people sick. Some people may have a fever or cough or both, but for most people these reactions are mild.  Kids are also less likely to get the coronavirus.  But it is very contagious, which means it can easily spread from one person to another.  That’s why we are all working together to take care of everyone by staying home.  It is great that school is closed to try and keep us healthy. I am also staying home and working from home too.”  The point is to be able to share the basic facts so they understand why and how we are protecting ourselves. 

If your child asks a question that you do not know the answer to, be honest and say that you are not sure, but that you will try to find out or update them as you learn more.  To avoid sending mixed or confusing messages, it is helpful for all parents and caregivers to be on the same page of what information a child receives.

Some helpful resources that can be used when discussing coronavirus with children include A Kids Book About COVID-19 and an NPR comic strip.  Further resources on explaining COVID-19 to children can be found at the Boston Child Study Center’s website.

 

Share with your child what they can do to help keep themselves and everyone safe

Children feel empowered with information and if they feel they have a role.  When reassuring your child that you are doing your best to keep them safe, you can also let them how they can help.  Such as by washing their hands for at least 20 seconds (or for as long as singing happy birthday twice) before eating, after returning home, using the bathroom, or blowing their nose, sneezing, or coughing.  They can also use a tissue for any sneezes or coughs. 

 

Check-in on how your child feels about coronavirus and validate their feelings

Instead of talking to your child about your own feelings of anxiety, check-in on their feelings (e.g., “I wonder how you feel about coronavirus”). This opens the door for your child to express their feelings, without assuming, making judgments, or expecting them to feel the same way you do.  It would be helpful to then validate their feelings, perhaps of anxiety (e.g., “I understand you feel scared”), or perhaps sadness or boredom.  If your child shares feelings similar to your own, you can calmly normalize this feeling in a way that sends the message that you are coping (e.g., Sometimes I feel a little scared too and it’s okay to feel scared sometimes).  Let them know that they can always come to you to share their feelings or to ask any questions.  This helps kids learn that they can share their feelings with you and that you can help.

 

Be creative in continuing to celebrate milestones and keeping in touch with friends

Your child may express disappointment in having to cancel a special occasion, such as their birthday party, or they may say that they miss their friends.  All of which are difficult, and validation (e.g., “I know it is hard to not be able to see your friends”) will likely be helpful.  Together you may be able to problem solve creative ways to continue to celebrate birthdays.  For example, a birthday can still be celebrated with family and friends virtually or through a car parade.  Encourage virtual playdates, either through a video conference platform or an interactive child-friendly app (e.g., Caribu).

 

Limit amount of news

When working with people of all ages (adults included!), I often suggest to limit watching or reading the news to once or twice a day, so as not to overwhelm ourselves. This is especially so when your children are around.  For children ages 5 and younger, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends to avoid media exposure, and for older children, to limit media exposure.  If children are exposed to the news, try to have them do so with your supervision. This allows you to check-in with them afterwards on how they are doing and if they have any questions.  In addition, you can also emphasize positive news, such as those who are helping others (e.g., healthcare workers, charities, etc.).

 

Finally, be kind to yourself and engage in self-care.  Being a parent is already the most difficult (and most rewarding!) job, and now in addition to being a full time parent, you may be a homeschool teacher, all while juggling work and household demands.  Taking care of ourselves (by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising), and forgiving ourselves when we feel guilty (e.g., when you allow your child extra screentime so you can take a work call), not only models self-care for your child, but also helps you better support your family.

 

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