As novel coronavirus, called COVID-19, continues to spread to multiple countries, including the U.S., it’s important for adults to communicate calmly with children.
Karen Rogers, PhD, Clinical Psychologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, provides some guidelines for how to talk to kids about the virus.
Kids pay close attention to how adults talk about coronavirus. “One of the most important things to keep in mind is that children use adults to understand the world,” says Rogers. “So, kids will be more or less anxious based on how the adults around them are communicating with them.”
Kids and teenagers alike need adults to help them put this epidemic in perspective. “They also don’t have a lot of life experience to put something like COVID-19 in context,” says Rogers. “They really do need adults to interpret information for them.”
Provide accurate, age-appropriate facts about coronavirus. Before talking to kids, adults should understand the facts and be prepared to share accurate information in a way that kids can understand.“So far, [most people in the U.S.] are relatively protected from this epidemic and that’s an important message for kids,” says Rogers. “It’s also important for kids to hear that children seem to be not particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Because COVID-19 is still so new, scientists are not sure why fewer children seem to develop symptoms of the virus, or have mild symptoms, but adults can tell kids that most children don’t get very sick from the virus.
In addition, to avoid issues of bullying or teasing in school, kids should know that neither race nor ethnic background impacts a person’s chance of having the virus. “When reporting on COVID-19, a lot of news coverage shows people with Asian appearance,” says Rogers. “But just because someone is of Asian descent doesn’t mean they are a carrier. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where your family is from, and kids should be aware of that.”
Rogers advises adults to be especially clear with young kids who may misinterpret the images they see on television. “Younger children don’t understand that this is footage from far away,” she says. “They may think it’s showing the people in our community associated with the risk.”
Talk to kids to help alleviate anxiety with coronavirus. “This is an opportunity to help kids learn that when they feel worried about things, it’s important to talk to people,” says Rogers. “You can tell a child, ‘When you feel anxious, talk to grown-ups about it because they can often help you.’”
Rogers suggests approaching a child’s worries in a curious, playful way. “You can say, ‘What if I told you most kids aren’t getting sick from this?’ Or, ‘What if I told you, most people who are sick are very far away from here?’ Then you can give them information.”
Tell your kids that adults are working to keep them safe. The COVID-19 epidemic is a fluid situation. Adults can reassure kids that even if things change—like certain safety precautions are put in place—it’s being done to keep them safe.
“It’s important for kids to know that there are lots of adults working very hard to make sure this illness doesn’t make a lot of people sick,” Rogers says. “There are really smart people working really hard on this. If things change, like schools close, it’s because there are adults making decisions to try to protect everybody.”
Demonstrate good hygiene habits. For adults, modeling good hygiene—such as frequent hand-washing—is the best way to get kids to do the same.“Adults can let kids know, ‘I am going to wash my hands and I’m going to sing the alphabet song,’” says Rogers. “Or adults can say, ‘Oops, I touched my nose. I’m going to wash my hands.’”
It’s also important to be consistent and remind kids to wash their hands with warm, soapy water after playing outside or before meals, and to try to avoid touching their eyes, noses and mouths.
“Those routines are lifetime health habits that kids will carry with them,” Rogers says.