Talking to Kids about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) scares some of us more than others, which may, in turn, be scaring our children. Children always pick up on what their parents are feeling, and if a parent is feeling panicky, there’s no question the kids will begin to worry, too. By taking deep breaths and managing their emotions, parents can show their children that even scary situations can and should be met with calm, cool, control. Parents should also be prepared to have an ongoing conversation with children about the coronavirus.

Fear of the COVID-19 is mostly about our fear of the unknown. Even the doctors don’t seem to know a lot about coronavirus: why some patients sicken and die, while others have mild or no symptoms at all.  We have also seen that in the worst cases of corona, there’s no treatment: the doctors can only offer supportive measures.

COVID-19 Confusion

There’s also confusion over the right way to get the contagion under control. That makes us feel like the experts are taking a stab in the dark. If even the experts don’t know how to keep us safe, how then should we feel confident they’ve got this coronavirus thing under good control?

The fact is, they don’t. But panic and fear are negative emotions that can make it hard for us and for our children to cope with difficulties. And one important way to handle COVID-19 exploding on the world stage is to consciously dial down the level of distress, and move our feelings from fear to concern. We can help our children do this too, by talking with them.

“We should talk to our children in a manner that empowers them to feel safe and secure while also educating them about self-care and healthy precautions. This way, we are teaching them an invaluable life skill as opposed to fueling further hysteria and insecurity,” says clinical therapist Joseph Tropper.

alcohol hand gel helps protect against coronavirus
Alcohol gel is one way we can proactively protect ourselves from coronavirus (COVID-19)

Taking Coronavirus Precautions

In addition to talking with children, let them see you are concerned enough to take sensible precautions on your own, like trying not to touch your face and washing your hands. These actions show children that when we are calm and clearheaded, we can think better and so take more proactive steps in dealing with frightening situations.

Children watch their parents for cues on how to behave in different situations. Claire Lerner, a specialist in child development and parent guidance suggests that picking up on a parent’s feelings is a biological imperative for children. “Young children are wired to tune in to their parents’ cues to gauge their safety in the world. They pick up not just on your words but on your facial expressions and body language. If children sense worry and anxiety, it is likely to increase their own sense of insecurity. So it’s important as parents to tune in to your own feelings and find ways to manage them so that when you are with your child you can project a sense of calm.”

businessman fears coronavirus contagion in the workplace
It’s hard to hide how we feel. Better he should leave those feelings in the office, rather than bring them home to his children.

In other words, we may not be in control of coronavirus, but we don’t have to let our concerns get in the way of sleep or function. This is what we need to show our children: that we do the best we can during stressful situations and life goes on. That we don’t let our emotions get the best of us. In this way, the strong parent who stays in control no matter what, offers children the backbone they need to cope with every difficulty. Even corona.

COVID-19 Stress Syndrome

Dr. Carole Lieberman, bestselling author of “Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My!” says this is easier said than done. “Grownups not only have Corona Virus Stress Syndrome, many now have mass hysteria. When kids see their parents wearing masks or gloves or running down the store aisles to pack their baskets with toilet paper, kids become terrified—not only of coronavirus, but of their parents having lost their minds! These fears and stress are weakening families’ immune systems and actually making them more susceptible to catching the coronavirus!”

Girl comforts worried mother
Children always sense a parent’s distress.

7 Steps to COVID-19 Sanity

But aside from deep breaths and proactive preventive steps, what can stressed out parents do to feel better and help their kids feel better, too? Dr. Lieberman suggests the following 7 steps to coronavirus sanity for parents and children:

  1. Don’t panic: calm down—if not for yourself—then for your kids. Engage in stress-relief activities that are fun for you and your children: play their favorite music, take walks in nature, and welcome a rescue pet.
  2. Explain that coronavirus is like a cold or the flu—with rest and proper treatment, most people get well soon.
  3. Use coronavirus as a teaching tool, to teach kids good health habits like: wash your hands, eat nutritious food, take vitamins, get enough sleep and exercise, cover your mouth when you cough and nose when you sneeze.
  4. Limit kids’ exposure to fear-mongering news stories and tell them to check with you about scary things they may have heard from classmates.
  5. If you or your child have a health condition, visit the doctor for a checkup to make sure it’s under control.
  6. Stop any xenophobia in its tracks by telling kids not to be mean to kids who come from countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran—the hotbeds of coronavirus.
  7. Don’t keep your kids home from school unless their school closes because of an active case.

There is much about the coronavirus that is upsetting. On the bright side, the best way to teach resilience is by modeling it for our children with our own behavior. Parents can help children cope with this new and scary thing, just by managing feelings. And that’s a remarkable lesson for a child to learn from a difficult situation.

Stay well!

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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