At the outset of SARS-COV-2 making it's way to the US, just a week before we reached full on pandemic levels and schools were still open, my 5-year-old grandson excitedly told me via FaceTime video that, “Biba, my teacher told me there’s a 95% chance if coronavirus got into my body, my body would destroy it before I got sick.”
Brava, I thought, smart schoolteacher, smart school talking point (he’s in a magnet school in Brooklyn, so naturally….). And she's right. By some grace of the universe or luck of kids' immune systems, this virus is, by and large, sparing the children. Few children, even in the massive outbreak in China, got sick, and of those few who did, there were only rare complications.
Sigh of relief, right? And an important fact we can share with our children. But remember, kids are scared about their parents and grandparents and others they care about getting sick, too. And as this virus spreads at the rate it is, there's a good chance that someone your child knows could get sick with COVID-19, and even if it's mild, to your child, it could be as big a deal as a monster under the bed.
So let's return to how to talk with kids.
What is it that’s exemplary about my grandson's teacher's message? It’s very Mr. Rogers: it addresses something kids might hear about in the news, in hushed whispers at home, in the classroom or on the schoolyard that might leave a child feeling scared (or very scared), and does so in a way that reinforces a child’s safety – and importantly, ability to handle a situation with resilience. My grandson was aware, knowledgeable, and confident. I am quite sure he would still sneeze, wipe his boogers with his hand, and jump in my lap and touch my face. But he wasn’t afraid, or hearing scary hushed whispers while he was in the dark. This confidence in his own safety is so important, especially as he in in the epicenter of the outbreak, in Brooklyn, with two parents on the front lines in health care.
Openly, Frankly, Age Appropriately
I suggest that’s how we talk with our kids about COVID-19. Openly, frankly, and age appropriately.
They're no doubt hearing about it, by now are probably out of school if not on some form of ‘lockdown' of sorts, and as the situation continues to escalate, like most adults, they too are likely experiencing some anxiety, and may not know how to respond. Older kids, especially teens, may be dismissive and not take basic precautions – and are likely to be sharing lip gloss, drinks, cigarettes, etc. – all of which right now could be vectors. So being honest, deescalating panic, while sharing commonsense strategies is a good tactical approach.
Key points on how to talk to our kids include:
- Process and manage your own anxiety first.
- Assess what your child already knows or has heard.
- Listen – and don’t dismiss – your child’s worries or fears.
- Connect at an age-appropriate level.
- Emphasize (and teach!) what your child can do, for example, elbow bumps, handwashing, and not sharing food or drinks.
- Try to make lemonade out of lemons when it comes to school closings, cancelled travel plans, cancelled birthday parties, or other disappointments your child might face as this situation evolves. It's a rough time, and kids don't like being cooped up, restricted, or kept from socializing. So do your best to make it fun. I know it's hard. I know it's demanding. But they'll hopefully be able to remember this time – and your response to it – in a way that gives them resilience for their lifetime.
There are also some solid resources, for example:
- NPR's Just for Kids: A Comic Exploring the Coronavirus is light, thorough, and provides good visuals
- The New York Times article How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus offers good advice on how to assess what your child knows and work from there as a basis for an age-appropriate conversation while keeping your own anxiety in check and providing practical guidelines to your kiddo
- and this WHO resource-at-a-glance is a good reminder that when children are stressed they may act out in any number of ways, so it encourages understanding as well as sticking to regular routines whenever possible, making sure to create time for play and relaxation – rather than focusing on fear. And should illness necessitate hospitalization of a child, keep child and parents together whenever possible.
- The New York Times also did a piece on talking with teens and tweens, which includes explaining any stocking up you might do as if you were stocking up for winter weather or a hurricane, and involve them, encouraging them to choose their favorite snacks to ‘stockpile.’
Personal and cultural crises are never easy for children. Many of us, even as adults, remember our childhoods in reference to major cultural events. Our kids, depending on their age, already have many to contend with. Many of our children have experienced a culture torn by school shootings, 9/11, public bombings, concert shootings, and myriad other tragedies large and small – global and local – not to mention personal losses and challenges we all inevitably face as humans. What can make the most difference in experiencing a tragedy versus that tragedy being felt as a trauma, is the response we witness and receive from those we love, and who, when we’re children, we need to feel are in charge.
It’s a lot of pressure to keep our children emotionally protected during trying times like we’re in now. Getting on the same page with your child’s teachers , classmates' parents, and other family members (i..e, older siblings who might frighten younger ones, grandparents, etc.) – even if all connection is virtual right now – can go a long way toward helping your child and other children feel universally supported, and can also help you as a parent, feel you aren’t alone. You're definitely not.