#stayhomestayhopeful - Talking to Children about the Coronavirus
April 20, 2020
Written by Taren Coley, MD, Psychiatrist
As we are all tasked with figuring out our “new normal” in times like these, many adults are also dealing with finding ways to talk with children about the Coronavirus. By now, your child has likely heard about the Coronavirus from friends, school, news, or social media outlets. There is no one right way to have these conversations. It is helpful to come from a calm, supportive, and open place where a child can feel comfortable asking questions.
When talking to your children about the Coronavirus, here are a few things to consider:
Some children may want to talk about current events, whereas others may not show any interest. Older children are typically able to communicate their thoughts verbally and younger children may communicate through nonverbal means such as play. Recurrent themes that show up through play may provide clues as to how they are thinking about the world around them. In any case, let them know you are available. Follow their lead and do not force the conversation if they are not ready.
Try to find a balance of giving just enough accurate information so that it is not overwhelming. For adolescents and teens, it may be helpful to find out what they already know and correct any misinformation. Children tend to be very perceptive and may figure out if you are making up things. However, it is not expected that you have all the answers and it is ok to say, “I don’t know”.
Be developmentally appropriate.
Be sure to use language and terms they will understand.
Be prepared for questions.
Here are some examples of questions that kids may have about Coronavirus and ways to respond include:
What is Coronavirus?
There are many kinds of germs, like ones that can cause a tummy ache or a sore throat. Coronavirus is a kind of germ that can cause an illness kind of like a cold or the flu.
Why are some people wearing masks?
Masks help prevent people from spreading germs. Doctors and nurses also wear masks when they help take care of people who are sick.
What happens if I get sick?
Coronavirus can sometimes make people have a fever, cough, or have trouble breathing easily. Kids tend to have milder symptoms and usually do not get very sick, and people who do get sick tend to get better. There are doctors and nurses who help people when needed and they are working really hard to keep people healthy.
Process your own feelings first.
This is a stressful time for everyone, but it is especially important that we monitor our own anxieties prior to talking with kids. Find a time to talk when you are feeling calm and in control of your emotions. Children learn from watching others around them and can pick up when parents worry. They will look to you to see how they should behave.
Focus on things that you can control.
Oftentimes children will personalize things and worry about themselves or loved ones getting sick. Remind them of the things they can practice to stay healthy.
Here are some healthy habits to remind children to practice during COVID-19:
Keeping hands off of their faces
Sneezing and coughing into their elbows or into a tissue that is then thrown away
You can also review other things that are occurring to prevent the spread of illness such as cancellation of events and social distancing. It is also important to limit screen time to reduce the amount of time that may be centered on topics about the virus.
Remember, kids are resilient and we can all help them understand and make sense of the world around us.
Dr. Taren Coley, MD
Dr. Taren Coley is double-board certified in General Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A native North Carolinian, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from East Carolina University and her Medical Degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Coley remained at UNC to complete her general psychiatry residency training and a child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship. Through her training, she has gained expertise in human development throughout the lifespan and treatment of individuals through psychopharmacology and psychotherapy. At HopeWay, Dr. Coley serves as the Director of Outpatient Services overseeing the clinical operations at HopeWay Psychiatry & Associates, in addition to treating clients at HopeWay. Dr. Coley’s comprehensive and individualized treatment approach helps clients understand and appropriately manage their diagnoses, allowing them to move forward in their recovery.
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