How To Talk To Your Kids About Coronavirus
In these unprecedented and uncertain times, it can be really hard to know how, exactly, to talk to your children about everything that is happening. How much information is too much? What is the best way to reassure them? Here, clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy shares a few things to keep in mind when talking to your child about coronavirus.
Honesty Is The Best Policy
If you haven’t talked to your child yet about what’s happening in the world, you should. It’s best to share relevant and age-appropriate information rather than avoid the topic, as your child has definitely noticed that things feel different now than they did weeks ago. We often worry about scaring children by sharing truthful information, but the scariest thing for a child is sensing that something feels off in their environment and then feeling alone because an adult isn’t explaining what’s happening.
There’s a fancy term for this called “unformulated experience,” which refers to feeling like something isn’t right but not having an adult provide the clarity you need. So, right now, if we don’t talk to our children about what’s happening, they’re experiencing this inside: “I am not going to school, I am not going to swim class, Mommy and Daddy are home all day and look worried…but no one is talking to me about it.” If a child has a loving adult who can explain what’s happening, something like, “Yes, you have noticed that we aren’t going to swim or school, and you’ve noticed that Mommy and Daddy are talking a lot…,” then a child actually starts to feel safe because their perceptions have been validated.
Remember this: Developmentally-appropriate versions of the truth delivered from a loving, supportive adult always feel safe.
Use The Word Coronavirus
I have a wide range of kids, ages 2 to 8. I like to use the word coronavirus with all of them because they’ve all been hearing it in our home. Here are some words to use with younger children: “Coronavirus is a big fancy word for a germ that’s like the flu. It could make some adults sick.” After you explain the basics, focus on communicating about the impact of coronavirus on their day-to-day lives, as this is much more relevant to your child than the details of the virus itself.
To explain social distancing or self-quarantine, you can tell your younger child: “The germ can go from one person to another, so we’re all staying home to stop the germ. We’re going to beat it… but it does mean that we can’t go to school or ballet or friend’s homes.”
Focus On The Impact To Your Child
Remember: there are two types of information that you can give your child. One is information about the virus itself and the other is information about how the virus is meaningfully impacting your child’s life. The second should be your focus. You cannot over inform your child about those changes – if your child knows he has art class on Tuesdays and sees grandma on Thursdays, you need to tell him that those activities won’t be happening. You want your children to understand the changes to their schedule so they can prepare and feel more in control.
Manage Expectations + Validate How Hard The Uncertainty Is
In a situation without a lot of clear answers, tell the truth. Tell the truth about not knowing and tell the truth about how hard it is to not know. I encourage parents to say, warmly and slowly, “We just don’t know… and that’s so hard. Sometimes we have to wait to find out more. I wish I knew exactly when you were going back to school. And you probably wish you knew. Waiting is so hard. I promise I will let you know as soon as I have more information.”
Tune In To Their Behavior
You will likely see your kids look for chances to release their feelings of worry and anger and sadness. It would be normal if your child has an increase in dysregulated behavior and meltdowns. Give your kids your most generous interpretation of their behaviors. Assume that their meltdowns are related to the massive shifts to their schedules and to the worries all around them.
If your child is having a very hard time, make sure to connect to him about all the changes. It gives children a sense of control to better understand what’s happening. I recommend that families make two lists with their kids: Things that Have Changed and Things that Have Stayed the Same. For example, “We’re not going to school and we’re not going to ballet, that’s changed. We are still reading books and having dance parties, that’s the same.”
For children who are already anxious and may be extremely worried, we want to be warm and loving and validating. These kids need to talk and be able to voice their concerns, but remember: all kids also need boundaries around their worry. They need to hear us say, “My job as a parent is to keep everyone safe and that is my most important job. You have a job here, too. Your job is to do your schoolwork, to zoom with your friends, to have fun everyday and to talk to me about how you’re feeling. Let’s both do our jobs well.”
Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist and parenting guidance provider. She specializes in helping people cope with anxiety and stress and build resilience in difficult moments. Dr. Becky has an expertise in parenting and child development; she equips parents with tools to strengthen parent-child relationships, decrease problem behaviors, and build more peaceful homes. Dr. Becky received a BA in Psychology and Human Development, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, from Duke University and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Dr. Becky maintains a private practice in midtown Manhattan, runs parenting groups and workshops, lectures on various mental health issues, and consults for organizations.
You can follow Dr. Becky on instagram @drbeckyathome.