How to Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus
It can feel overwhelming to answer your kids' questions about coronavirus when you're not even sure yourself. Our experts offer their tips to help you and your family manage.
“Will I have a birthday this year?” My ten-year-old daughter’s question startled me. “Of course you will. Birthdays happen every year, no matter what,” I answered. “Well I know I’ll turn 11 but I meant, will I get to do anything fun this year? With my friends? Or will it be another Zoom party?”
Ah. The coronavirus killjoy strikes again. Over the past few months, my daughter has watched her brothers celebrate birthdays, one brother’s graduation, a friend’s funeral, and a relative’s baby shower—all online, for social distancing purposes. It was no wonder she was already thinking about her fall birthday and wondering what would happen.
“I’m not sure, we’ll have to wait and see what the virus is doing in the fall,” I finally said.
She burst into tears. She’s not a child that cries easily, but this time a torrent of heartbreak flooded out. This was it, the thing that finally made her snap? To me, it was just one more celebration that had to be effectively canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic but as she sobbed how 11 is her favorite number, I realized that this meant so much more to her. It encapsulated everything that was wrong and how much had changed over the past year.
What children are thinking during coronavirus
Parents are having similar conversations to this all over the world, says Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist specializing in child development and a faculty member of Columbia University in New York City. “Although kids can be very observant and pick up on what’s happening, they haven’t had the life experiences necessary to understand what’s going on, the way adults do,” she says. “It can be easy for them to misinterpret a situation or become frightened when they don’t have enough information about it, which is exactly why it’s so important that parents are talking about the coronavirus pandemic with their children.”
“Children’s brains work differently than adult brains,” says Robert Hamilton, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, founder of the charity Lighthouse Medical Missions, author of 7 Secrets of The Newborn, and host of the podcast The Hamilton Review: Where Kids and Culture Collide. These are a few ways a therapist is staying sane during the coronavirus craze.
For example, young children (about 10 years of age and younger) are very concrete thinkers so you have to be clear and not talk around the issue, hoping they’ll figure out what you mean, explains Dr. Hamilton. They also have a hard time understanding time, so talking about what’s happened in the past or what may happen in the future may not make sense to them. But perhaps the biggest difference is that young children believe everything you tell them so it’s very important to give them accurate, age-appropriate answers to their questions, he says.
Even tweens and teens, who may seem to have an adult grasp of the information, don’t process it the same way adults do, he says. “Puberty hormones can make them more emotional or withdrawn. Their brains don’t finish developing until about 25 years old,” he says. “You should be open, honest, and frank with kids of all ages. This is not the time for sarcasm or hyperbole.”
How to talk to your kids about COVID-19
Having conversations about the virus and everything that comes with it, like coronavirus symptoms, is a great start. However, there are things you can do to ensure your kids are getting the information and support they need, Dr. Hamilton says.
Let your kids lead the discussion
Letting them talk and ask questions will help them feel heard and will help you see where they’re at, Hafeez says. “COVID-19, germs, and disease may be something your child knows nothing about so you may need to start with the basics,” she says.
Keep it age-appropriate
You don’t want to overwhelm them with information they don’t want or can’t process. As their parent, you know best what they need. “Every child is different, so tailor your conversations to your child’s developmental level and needs,” she says.
Don’t be fearful
Children will mirror their parents’ emotions so if you come into the conversation anxious and afraid, that’s how they will feel too, regardless of what words you say, Dr. Hamilton says. “If you have a lot of worries or are upset, find another adult to talk to, not your child,” he says, adding to be careful of what they overhear as well.
Use physical touch
The type and amount of touch your child prefers will depend on their personality age but generally speaking, your child thrives on physical touch, especially from you, Dr. Hamilton says. “Hugs, snuggles, a pat on the arm can all be very comforting and reassuring while you have this discussion,” he says. These are coronavirus conspiracy theories you shouldn’t believe.
Have the conversation more than once
“You should discuss COVID-19 and other related issues with your child whenever they have questions. Chances are, your children will have a lot of questions, so be ready to answer them openly and honestly,” Hafeez says. Periodically check in with your child to see how they are feeling and if they have any more questions, she adds.
How to answer common kids’ questions about COVID-19
Feeling a little overwhelmed? This pandemic isn’t easy on anyone, parents included, and most of us aren’t experts in child development or crisis therapy. To help you out, I’ve asked our experts to give you a script for answering common questions kids are asking these days. We’ve broken it down into what to say to young children (elementary-aged), and what to say to teens and tweens. And make sure you yourself are up to date on the newest COVID-19 information: These are the 6 places you’re most likely to catch coronavirus.
Will I die?
Even if kids don’t come right out and say it, chances are they are thinking about death in a new and personal way, Dr. Hamilton says.
For young kids: “Children almost never die of this illness, you will be OK and I’m here to take care of you.”
For older kids: “Everyone gets sick from time to time but let’s look at the numbers for your age group together. It’s very rare in teens but if you do happen to get it, I’ll take care of you and so will the doctors and nurses.”
What if you get sick?
Worrying about parents and grandparents is a very natural thing for kids, as it affects not only people they love but also who will take care of them, Hafeez says.
For young kids: “I’m an adult and you don’t need to worry about taking care of me. If I get sick I’ll be OK although I might have to stay in bed for a little while.”
For older kids: “I’m an adult and you don’t need to worry about taking care of me. But let’s make a plan for what to do if I do become ill. I likely wouldn’t get a very bad case but here’s a list of people you can call for help, including the doctor and nearby relatives.” These are 11 signs you may have already had the virus.
Why can’t I see grandma? What if she dies?
The truth is that older people are at a much higher risk of COVID-19 complications and death from the disease and you shouldn’t hide this fact from your kids, especially as it can help them understand why we wear masks and practice social distancing, Hafeez says.
For young kids: “We need to protect your grandparents which means we can’t visit them for a while. If grandma or grandpa gets sick, it doesn’t mean they will die. But, if they do, then that’s going to be a really hard and sad day for everyone but the family will be OK and we will get through it together.”
For older kids: “Grandma has diabetes which does put her at a higher risk which is why we are extra careful to protect her. However, everyone dies sometime and it will be something we have to work through together as a family. Why don’t we write a letter to grandma telling her some of your favorite memories or get on a video call with her?”
Is going back to school dangerous?
The debate over returning to school in-person or learning remotely is very heated right now and children definitely have picked up on that anxiety, Dr. Hamilton says.
For young kids: “You don’t need to be afraid. You can trust your teachers and us to make the best decision to keep you safe and help you learn.”
For older kids: “Yes, school is very uncertain right now and there might be a lot of changes during the school year. What exactly are you concerned about? Here are some things we can keep normal and here are some ways we can adjust if need be. This year will probably be a tough one but the pandemic won’t last forever.”
Do I really have to wear a face mask?
Face mask-wearing and social distancing practices are big changes for kids of all ages and it makes sense that many are pushing back or seeking more information, Dr. Hamilton says.
For young kids: “Yep, this isn’t fun but it is something we need to do to help keep everyone safe and healthy. It’s just like wearing a seatbelt or a life jacket. Let’s make a game to see who can keep their mask on the longest without touching it.”
For older kids: “The rule now is that this is something everyone needs to be doing every time they are in public, even if it’s not totally comfortable. If everyone wears a mask it can reduce transmission of the virus to very low levels. You may not feel sick but kids your age can carry the virus and spread it to others without knowing it so it’s better to be safe.” Sharing these 11 eye-opening facts that will convince you to wear a face mask is also a good idea.
What can’t I stop worrying about this?
Anxiety levels are up for everyone, children included, and it will help them manage their fears more if they can talk about it, Hafeez says.
For young kids: “It’s normal to worry about this stuff. If you feel scared or have a nightmare, come get me and we can snuggle.”
For older kids: “Some worrying is normal but if you are feeling anxious all the time and it’s negatively affecting your life, we can talk to your doctor about other ways to help you. Know that I’m always here to listen. Let’s think of some ways we can help other people, that always helps me break the cycle of anxious thoughts.”
Why can’t I have a birthday party?
Kids are missing out on a lot of milestone celebrations this year and this feels like a real loss to them, Hafeez says.
For young kids: “This is a sad thing! But nobody is supposed to be having birthday parties, or any parties, right now. It’s to help keep everyone safe. Let’s talk about some things we can do at home to make that day extra special.”
For older kids: “This isn’t fair at all and I’m bummed too that you can’t have a party this year. This won’t last forever though and next year we’ll make it extra great. What are some things I can do to help you feel loved this year?”
Discussing what’s normal
Given the likelihood of virus cases increasing in the fall, both from COVID-19 and seasonal influenza, I had to tell my daughter that she would likely only be able to have a small party with just us and her brothers this year. I expected some tears over not being able to celebrate with her friends, but what most broke my heart was her immediate acceptance of the situation. “It’s fine,” she sighed. “It’s normal.” Not, it’s the “new normal,” but just normal. My daughter was born in November 2009, during the height of the H1N1 pandemic and it appears that pandemics will continue to shape her life for the foreseeable future. And there shouldn’t be anything normal about that. Speaking of H1N1, these are 13 ways coronavirus is different from all epidemics through history.
For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.