How to talk to children and address their coronavirus concerns

Be honest and don’t keep them in the dark, youth psychiatrist says

There’s no escaping it. On television, in schools, on the street and at home, one word hangs in the air: coronavirus.
The coronavirus — which causes COVID-19 — and its repercussions are unlike anything people today have ever experienced. Stock markets have been plunging, travel restrictions have been put in place, major sports events have been suspended, schools are closing and an entire country, Italy, is under lockdown.
All of this information can be overwhelming and frightening for children, and it’s up to parents to provide accurate information in an age-appropriate manner, one expert says.
Youth psychiatrist Dr. Rachel Mitchell, with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said it’s important to validate fears held by children, to listen to them and to be sure to speak to them at the age-appropriate level. If they have asked questions, answer them honestly, and don’t share any more information other than what they asked.
“Obviously, the conversation you have with a five-year-old is not going to be the same conversation that you have with a 10-year-old, which is not the same conversation that you’re going to have with a teenager,” Mitchell said.

Limit exposure to the news

Also, don’t keep them in the dark.
“Don’t hide news from kids,” Mitchell said. “The instinct to protect them is natural and valid and inherent to being a parent. But as with any difficult news story, telling them the realistic truth at their level of understanding is very important.”
But that also doesn’t mean putting on the news 24/7. Mitchell said there is value to limiting exposure to the news. 
For young children, Mitchell said, parents could read the news with them. This provides the opportunity to ask questions along the way. But tell them only what you think they need to know. 
“Thinking that something is being kept from you is more anxiety-provoking than a real conversation at any age,” Mitchell said.
And a bit of empowerment goes a long way.
“Helping kids feel that they have agency through handwashing, for example, is amazing,” Mitchell said. 

Be a role model

With COVID-19 cases rising across Canada daily, it may be difficult for parents to deal with their own fears and concerns. But Mitchell said it’s important to keep calm around children.
“You have to be aware of your anxiety,” she said. “If it’s out of control, then that’s probably not something you want to show your kids.”
Instead, parents can leave the room if they feel their anxiety is overwhelming and return once they’ve calmed down.
And finally, ensure that children are reading trusted sources and not listening to rumours or misinformation passed through social media, particularly for children who may be more anxious than others.
“Always validate that anxiety and that concern, because it’s valid, especially now,” Mitchell said. “If it’s dismissed, then that’s a missed opportunity” as a parent.

How to manage kids’ anxiety

Although those aged 65 or over are the ones at greatest risk of developing the most serious symptoms, anxiety caused by the pandemic can be frightening for the young, says psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang. 
“We already have really high rates of anxiety in young kids, so in a situation like this, we have to be very mindful of how we are discussing it with young people,” Kang said.
She recommends telling kids the truth without sugar-coating it too much, using age-appropriate terms. 
But it’s very important to move to optimism and grounded facts to reassure them and not put extra stress on them, Kang says.
“Saying things like: ‘We know if you wash your hands, that certainly helps. We know that we have health-care providers that are doing their jobs. Nothing particularly has happened. People are just being cautious,’” Kang said. 

Wash Your Hands

Make it a family routine before every meal and snack to wash hands. If you do it together, you can model for them how to use soap, rub your hands together and rinse. For a timer, try slowly singing the ABCs together while you scrub. In Curious George, the Man with the Yellow Hat has a cold. He teaches George how germs can move from person to person and that’s important to wash your hands and avoid sharing utensils. Good hand washers, like Daniel Tiger, are germ busters!

Catch that Cough

When kids cough or sneeze, they tend to do it right into their hands — and then they use those hands to touch everything in sight! Instead, we can cough and sneeze into our elbow. Make it a game with kids. Can they catch the cough in their elbow? In the beginning, cheer when they do: “You caught it! That’s what germ busters do!” If they accidentally “catch it in their hands,” they can simply wash their hands with soap and water and start the game again.

“Rest is Best”

Tell them: When we are sick, we can stay home and rest our bodies; we can be germ busters by not spreading germs or going to school sick. And as parents, we can keep ourselves and our kids home if we have a fever or other symptoms.

Practice Healthy Habits

Remind kids that sleep, exercise and eating healthy foods are good, everyday ways to strengthen our bodies. We will all get sick sometimes! They have probably already had at least one cold this season. But we can be responsible germ busters when we practice handwashing, cough-catching, resting and basic healthy living.