Coronavirus: What to Tell Your Kids

A conversation with parent coach Eirene Heidelberger
March 12, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020

The global spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 has adults feeling anxious and uncertain, but what about children? Between constant news reports, overheard adult conversations, and whatever they may be picking up from their peers, the situation can be confusing and scary for kids.

Parents may find themselves unsure how best to comfort and guide their children as this situation continues to unfold.

I asked Eirene Heidelberger, parent coach, CEO of GIT Mom, and host of the podcast “Getting It Together With Eirene, The GIT Mom,” for her advice about how to talk to children about the coronavirus.

The Epoch Times: What do you think are the most important things parents can do to ease the minds of their children as the coronavirus continues to spread and dominate news headlines?

Eirene Heidelberger: Control yourself; keep yourself together; keep calm and carry on.

If you want to raise level headed, calm children—lead by example and be a grown-up vs. a sobbing alarmist hysterical mess. When parents manage their own anxieties we are better parents because we have the brain space to listen and support our children.

If you appear OK, they will be OK.

The Epoch Times: When it comes to very young children, say under school-age, how much—if anything—do you recommend parents tell them about the coronavirus?

Ms. Heidelberger: When discussing scary information it’s important to keep in mind your child’s age, temperament, and maturity. You want to be honest and real about life because it is not all rainbows and fairy tales; bad things happen, but, in some situations you just cannot be too real.

For children under 5, do not start a conversation or talk about it with your child or in front of your child because he or she is simply too young to process the information. Turn off disturbing images on your TV and social media. If the child brings it up, address it.

The Epoch Times: Children in school will surely hear various things about the coronavirus from their peers and, possibly, teachers. How should parents explain this situation to young kids?

Ms. Heidelberger: For children 6–9, explain the basic facts about the disease and what is occurring, but do not expose them to television or social media. The more repeated and prolonged exposure to TV and media images, the more anxiety this creates.

Depending on the age, explain the coronavirus as simply and neutrally as possible. Use journalistic principles—be short and to the point.

For example:

Who: The coronavirus is a disease mainly affecting older people and those already sick.

What: It causes fever, cough, and trouble breathing. It can be more serious in some people, especially if they are already sick.

When: At the end of 2019 coronavirus began to make people sick in China.

Where: The disease began in China, but now it’s spreading to other countries including the U.S.

Have these conversations sooner rather than later, so that you are your child’s trusted source of information.

Give them a frame of reference that they can understand, drawing on their past experience for what the sickness might be like—a cold, sniffles, aches, and tiredness.

Explain how advanced medicine is, all the hard work happening to protect American citizens, and that it’s easy to catch and spread but healthy kids and grownups aren’t likely to get it.

Additionally, your child may already be seeing individuals wearing face masks in everyday places. Don’t make a big deal out of it. If your child asks why, answer with a swift, “because they feel it’s their best way to stay healthy and every family has different strategies, that’s why we are doing a great job washing our hands.” Then, distract and move on with your conversation.

The Epoch Times: Older kids need to be more equipped to take common-sense precautions in the face of the virus’s spread. What do you recommend parents teach them about minimizing their risk?

Ms. Heidelberger: For children 10 and older, review basic precautionary steps: Hand washing, sneezing into elbows. Don’t spend time at friends’ houses if someone is sick.

Start by asking what they’ve heard and what they know about the virus. Let your child talk. Listen to them and address their feelings. By talking about it they’ll cope better. Or, if they’re unconcerned, respect their indifference and update as you feel necessary.

Remind kids that scientists are still learning about this new virus, so we don’t know a lot about it yet. Barely any children have gotten sick from it and it’s mainly making adults and older people sick. “But, Mommy and Daddy are healthy and so are Grandma and Grandpa so you have nothing to worry about.”

Remind them also that sometimes the news will talk a lot about one topic, which makes it seem like it’s much worse than it is; when actually measles and the flu affect many more people than the coronavirus.

Reassure your child that most people only get a mild illness and fully recover within a few weeks; that children very rarely get sick and when they do it is usually just like a cold; that pets are not affected. Describe what the main symptoms are and encourage them to let you know if they feel unwell.

The Epoch Times: What common fears or worries might children harbor as this topic remains front and center in society?

Ms. Heidelberger: That they, or their loved ones, are going to die.

If your child is worried over the news, show compassion to your child with love and affection and say, “I understand you are scared and how you’re feeling.” Be the grown-up and put aside your anger and grief to be a supportive parent.

If your child comes to you with questions because he or she heard something from the news or a friend and is confused, answer questions directly so there can’t be confusion or misunderstanding. Don’t hypothesize or jump to conclusions. Explain that doctors are doing everything they can to keep families safe and protected. Stay away from frightening words like disease and death.

If your child feels distraught and nervous, get your child involved in creating the family preparedness kit including family solutions in the case of school closings and evacuations and your back-up plan for childcare in the event your child’s school closes. This teaches responsibility and will allow them to take control over the situation in an impactful and visual way.

Be aware if the news is stressing your child out, and be extra involved to soothe anxiety or sadness or issues with sleep or concentration.

If you’re sad, be sad and tell your child what’s going on in your brain. Kids pick up on parents’ emotional temperaments and you are not doing them any favors by pretending you’re not affected.

The most important tip to cope is to get the TV off. The news’ job is to sensationalize events to get viewers to tune in, and a child’s brain is too young to process scary stuff.

If you’re cool, calm, and collected, your child will feel safe in our uneasy world.

We all want to hear everything is going to be OK. As parents, it’s our job to make our children feel safe. Put aside your own uncertainty to be there for your children.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza