How to talk to children about coronavirus

John Sharry on the best way to approach a family conversation about Covid-19

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Question: I am wondering how best to talk to my children about coronavirus. Clearly, there is lots of anxiety around. My 14-year-old daughter, who has a tendency to be dramatic, has been bringing home some mad information (from conversations in school and on the internet). She is upset by how quickly it is spreading – giving the impression that we will all have it by the end of the week.

We have tried to play it down a lot at home, saying we think it will all be fine. I tried to reassure my nine-year-old son (who, unfortunately, is a bit of worrier) that not a single person under 10 has died of the virus in the world, and straight away he talked about turning 10 soon.

What is the best way to approach this conversation?

Answer: While you might think you can protect children from the worries of the adult world, this is not practically possible, especially as children become older. The spread of coronavirus now dominates the news and media outlets, and it is filtering into the world of children. Just as parents are understandably alarmed and worried about what is happening, so are their children. Young children are now talking in the playground about the virus, and teenagers are sharing worries on social media.

Rather than avoiding the difficult conversation with your children, it is better to be proactive and to plan how and what you might tell them. It is always better that your children are talking to their parents and getting information from trusted adults rather than relying on unreliable sources such as their peers or social media.

Adapt your information to your child’s age

By simply turning off the TV news when they are around, you can largely protect preschool children from bad news stories from the outside world. Unless they are directly affected by coronavirus (such as witnessing a sick parent) they may not need explanations about what is happening and their innocence can be preserved. Once children start primary school, the news starts to infiltrate their world and their peer groups start talking and discussing what is happening. Once this starts, it is important you become proactive as a parent and raise issues as they confront them – at this stage the key is to use child-centred concrete language that they easily understand. Once your children start secondary school your explanations need to be more adult and scientific. Teenagers appreciate being taken seriously and being treated like adults on the same level as their parents.

Listen carefully

Make sure to first listen carefully when your children raise worries and questions. When your daughter talks of exaggerated facts, respond calmly and ask her: “Where did you hear that from?” When your son worries about death rates, give him space to express his thoughts and feelings. For both children, you want to encourage them to talk to you and to keep communication open. You want to give them the message that you can handle their feelings and worries.

Correct misinformation

Acknowledge that there is a lot of scary information going around, but not all of it is true. Direct your daughter towards reliable facts and information on the Internet. For example, there is an evidence-based summary on the Irish Times site that looks at all the facts and the protective actions you can take. I would suggest you read some of the information with your daughter (and possibly with your son, according to his level of understanding). This might be a good way to calmly go through the facts and to help you both think how best to respond. When your son challenges your reassurance, listen to his underlying worries. Although you can tell him that so far no young children have died, this may make him worried that older people (such as his parents) may be at risk. Acknowledging these worries and putting them in context of reliable information is the best approach.

Explore positive actions

Empower your children and yourself by focusing on reasonable actions that you can take to keep them safe. This can include agreeing good hand-washing routines and new ways of greeting people outside the home (such as waving instead of hand shaking). If you have to stay at home for a period, involve them in preparing a list of foods you will need and what fun activities you can do at home. Remember, taking safety actions does not have to be a morbidly serious affair. You can make a game of learning how to wash hands properly, seeing who can follow video instructions the best. Also, there are lots of funny videos online that describe new ways of greeting such as a foot tapping or elbow bumping.

Think through how you can respond

Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis is likely to escalate in the coming weeks and months, so it is important to adapt and think through how you can help your children cope. The key is to keep yourself informed and to strike a balance between taking appropriate safety action and continuing to live family life as normal.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology