Talking to children about COVID-19
Dr. Elizabeth Stanford, head of psychology, BC Children's Hospital | March 19, 2020
A lot is happening quickly in relation to COVID-19. It’s normal to feel worried and overwhelmed. Children may feel worried and overwhelmed too.
Talk to your kids about COVID-19 and how they are feeling about it.
Start the conversation. Let your child know you are someone they can talk to about COVID-19.
First, find out what they understand.
Show that you care and understand, and normalize their feelings. (“I understand why you think that.” “It makes sense that you are worried about COVID-19.” “I am sad that we can’t go on our trip.”)
Be ready with information and answers that are true, appropriate for your child’s age, and consistent.
Be ready to talk about what COVID-19 is (“COVID-19 is a new kind of virus. It can also be called coronavirus. Viruses can make people sick. COVID-19 makes most people only a little bit sick, but can make a very small group of people really sick. So that’s why everyone is working hard to take care of it.”).
Also be ready to explain things like “social distancing” (“Social distancing means that we try to keep a space between people if we go out. We are careful about crowds and what we touch.”)
Look out for your child asking lots of questions, or the same question over and over again. This can be a sign of anxiety. You answering the same question again and again often actually serves to raise, or maintain their anxiety over time. If this happens, try saying something that acknowledges the anxiety (“You’ve asked me that before; you’re really worried. It is stressful. Can you remind me what I said last time when you asked that question?”)
Point out the people who are helping and plan a way to help others with your child. Practise gratitude for what you do have and what you are able to do. Focus on the positive.
Practice what you are going to say with yourself or another adult ahead of time so when you speak with your child, you are calm and prepared with what you want to say.
If you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say you don’t know. As a parent you can always ask others and then answer the question later.
Monitor and restrict your child’s access to media about COVID-19.
- Just like for adults, constant information can feel overwhelming and add to stress.
- Checking the media once a day around your child may be enough.
- Be with your child when they are accessing the media.
- If you are looking for information, the BC Centre for Disease Control is one good place to go.
Maintain a family day that has structure and a sense of “normal.”
- Plan activities, meals, quiet time, and sleep.
- Do fun things that you might not usually have time to do (e.g., arts and crafts, a movie night, cooking, a board game, making a blanket fort, etc.).
- Make sure that you are managing your child’s screen-time, but maintain some social connections, even if this can only be done virtually.
Expect changes in behaviour; be patient and keep parenting.
- When we are stressed, it often comes out in our behaviour. What this looks for children depends on the child (their age, their level of stress, their temperament, etc.)
- ~Some common behaviour changes might be: clinginess, getting upset more easily, hyperactivity, or bad dreams.
- ~Sometimes children act ‘younger’ when they are stressed and may show behaviours from when they were younger (e.g., toileting accidents).
- It’s OK and actually helpful for children when their parents manage their behaviour in the way they normally would. This is another way that you can show a sense of “normal” for your child. This also is why taking care of yourself as a parent is important; you need energy and patience to help your child with their stress and behaviour.
Teach and remind about the basics.
- Teach your child hand washing with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
- Teach your child to not touch their face, eyes, nose, and mouth and to cover their cough with their elbow.
- Don’t get upset if they forget.
- Call 8-1-1 or 1-888-COVID19. You can also text 604-630-0300 if you have questions about symptoms.
Take care of yourself - physically and mentally.
By taking care of yourself, you do two things: First, you help yourself be the best caregiver you can be. Second, you model for your child how to take care of themselves.
- Think about basic self-care – eating regularly, hydrating, and getting good sleep.
- Think about what you can do to take a break, even if it’s just for short moments in the day.
- Stay in touch with your friends and supportive family members.
* For more information on parenting during COVID-19, please visit the section on our website here where you will find tips for talking to children, strategies for supporting your child’s mental health, and much more: keltymentalhealth.ca/info/parenting-during-covid-19