No matter how much you try to shield your children from the news, they can sense something has shifted. People seem more anxious; there are new social rules:
don’t hug others or hold their hands, don’t touch your face, don’t touch that book or toy, wash your hands often, stay home. This shift in adult behavior and general sense of unease will inevitably be absorbed by your children, regardless of whether or not they understand what the coronavirus is and how it is affecting the world. Remember, children feel the emotions you and your family members portray. Much more than what you say, how you act, think and feel around them, has the greatest impact. In uncertain times it’s inevitable parents will feel overwhelmed with worry or fear, and that’s okay. However, as much as possible try to find a sense of calm, when you know your children are paying attention.
While I generally recommend refraining from sharing stressful news stories with your children, this only applies if everyone else around them is also not talking about the news. With an unprecedented event, like the coronavirus pandemic, which has had global impact and has changed the daily lives of everyone around them, it’s unreasonable to expect your young child will not hear anything about it or feel the stress. They may have heard you discuss it quietly with your spouse or friends, or sensed there is something wrong going on around them. That alone is enough to cause anxiety in your child, which can be amplified if they are left to make sense of what they have seen or heard on their own, without your guidance and reassurance. If you suspect that this is the case with your child, the best thing to do is to talk about it, and through conversation, encourage them to share their feelings, questions and worries with you, so you can help alleviate their fears.
So how do you talk to your children about coronavirus?
At our cefa schools, our students are all younger than five, and for this age group, I suggest you empower your children by sharing with them, very simply, some information about COVID-19, as well as some strategies to deal with it. Remember to keep calm and be reassuring when discussing this topic, as not to provoke anxiety in your child. Another important point to keep in mind when you have the conversation is to explain it to them at a level they can understand and make sense of. Don’t overwhelm your little one by giving too much information.
This can help alleviate their anxiety instead of slowly building it up from whatever they hear from others. If you make it into a discussion, your child will also have the opportunity to ask you questions about it, alleviating any fears they may have had. It will also give your child the impression that you, as a family, will be fine, because you are working on it together.
Here are some key points you can discuss:
- Covid-19 is a virus, just like when some people get the flu (do they remember ever getting the flu, or when you had the flu?)
- The virus does not usually make kids sick, but;
- It’s quite contagious, which is why we have to:
- Keep our hands to ourselves
- Wash our hands often
- Cough into our sleeve
- Not have friends over for now
- Most people get better, just like when they have the flu
Once they know these basic facts, engage them in sharing with you what they are feeling by asking these two simple questions:
- Have you heard anything about it? (listen carefully, ask more questions)
- What do you do to keep healthy?
You can end the conversation by saying something along the lines of: “It looks like we are doing all the right things to stay safe, so we will be fine – what do you think?”
Do not dismiss their worries or minimize them. Just listen and ask them more questions. This is the step that will help in alleviating their anxiety. Once they feel heard, then you can offer some suggestions of how to deal with that particular fear.
Remember to keep the conversation simple and use words they can understand. There is no need to go into too much detail. The idea is to give your children information they can understand, calm their anxiety (listening to their concerns as you discuss, is key) and encourage them to wash hands often.
Of course, you know your child better than anyone else. If you feel your child is very young and has not felt any anxiety coming from you or anyone else regarding the coronavirus, there is no need to bring it up. If your child suffers from anxiety, depression or any other mental health concerns that could be triggered by having this discussion, consult with your child’s doctor or specialist first. If this is the case, keep a close watch for symptoms as your child may get triggered in any case, just by the changes in their environment.
How do you keep your child safe without nagging?
The best way to stay safe is to wash hands often, not touch our face, and not touch things that may be contaminated. It goes without saying that you should not bring your child to public places like parks or supermarkets. As much as you can, stay inside, and insist that everyone who returns home wash hands thoroughly.
It may be difficult for your young child to refrain from touching their face, so instead, sanitize all areas of your home and the toys or other objects your child touches, and focus on washing hands to keep the germs at bay.
For that, I suggest getting a transparent soap with a toy inside, like this one, which serves as both a visual cue and an incentive — so they can get to the toy sooner! Research has shown that children who use that soap wash their hands much more often and more willingly.
Once you talk to your child about it, make sure they are not exposed to the news on TV or other media, and that when you have “adult” conversations about the subject, they are not within earshot of those. If you reassure them on one hand, and then have alarming conversations on the other, you will just undo all of the work you’ve done in calming their anxiety.
How do you know if your child feels anxious about the coronavirus?
Even if your child does not talk about it, they may still feel anxious. Anxiety can take many forms, such as regressing in their development (for instance, going back to having “accidents” after being potty-trained); feeling separation anxiety even if you are still in the house; hitting, biting, or other attention-seeking behavior; even physical symptoms like cramps, headaches, body aches or tummy aches; loss of appetite; they may be more tired or lethargic than usual; they may worry about your safety (for example, have a disproportionate reaction to you sneezing or feeling tired).
If you feel that your child’s anxiety is severe, call a psychologist or your pediatrician to ask for professional advice. If not, the opportunity to discuss it openly with you will alleviate their concerns, as long as you remain calm and positive (and I know this is easier said than done sometimes). If after your conversation they have more questions, answer them reassuringly and using simple language they can understand. Let them know that they will be ok, and that you and your family will too.
Our schools remain open, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need someone to talk to. You can call your school or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org – we are here for you!
Natacha V Beim