Stay calm and confident

Texas health expert shares 5 tips for discussing coronavirus with kids

Texas health expert shares 5 tips for discussing coronavirus with kids

mother and child parent kid talking
Stick to the basics for kids under 10. Photo by Camille Tokerud/Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate news, and every day brings a new disruption to life, it's natural that people are anxious about what's next. While many of us are reeling from the uncertainty, there is one group that might be feeling especially anxious: our kids.

Dr. Michael Chang, an infectious disease specialist with UTHealth and Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston offers up some tips on how to speak to their fears.

"Practice saying 'I don't know,'" he says. "That's hard for parents to say, but it's important to take stock of what you do know and what you don't. What you want to convey to children is that you are aware of all that is happening and you will stay up to date and do your best to find out as many answers as you can."

Stick to the basics
Chang notes that younger children (those under 10) don't need to be bogged down with lots of details. "There's a new germ spreading around and making people sick, and everything that is happening now, school closings and having gymnastics class canceled, is all part of helping to stop spread the germ and to keep people safe," should do as a basic explanation. 

Assure kids that they'll be safe
"Kids younger than about 7 or 8 will be focused on their world," says Chang. "So what parents need to do is reassure them that people are thinking about this and working to bring it all under control."

Get older kids in on the empathy
Teens and preteens will look at the pandemic very differently. They will be much more likely to see how it affects them and their world. They also might see the entire thing as unfair. It's unfair that prom might be canceled. It's unfair they can't go to sports practices and meets. It's unfair that they can't be with their friends.

Above all, Chang advises, acknowledge those feelings and realize this is not the time for a lecture about how life is unfair. However, he says, older kids are becoming more attuned to a sense of justice, and that can work for families in terms of discussion.

"Yes, it's unfair," parents should agree. "But you can also work with older kids to see that it's unfair for everyone right now. 'It is unfair that you can't be with your friends, but it's also unfair if Grandma gets sick' is the kind of talking point that many older children will begin to clue into." 

Watch for signs of anxiety
Kids of all ages may not come right out and tell parents they are upset about the coronavirus. But kids are highly intuitive, and it's likely they are going to pick up on either the news or a parent's anxiety — or both. They may not, however, say anything. So, Chang recommends a few things for parents to look out for.

"Obviously, [look for] anxiety, especially in a child who hasn't exhibited that before," he says. "And look for changes in behavior. Younger children, especially, might become more clingy. If sleep patterns are disturbed, that can be an indicator something's not quite right. And any kind of regression, like wetting the bed."

Chang says those triggers can provide important teaching and talking moments. "I know, as a parent, when your child complains about something ('My tummy hurts.') the inclination is to want to fix it," he says. "But this is a time to help children identify what they are feeling. Ask, 'Why do you think you're hurting? What's bothering you?' That's a place to allow them to voice their fears and assure them people are working to keep them safe. It's really important to listen."

Parents should practice self care
Chang notes that it's important for parents to practice self care. Think of how you deal with uncertainty and anxiety. For some, that might be meditating, for others it could be channeling the emotion into cleaning or cooking. Whatever it is, Chang encourages parents to spend some time each day doing that so they'll be better able to exhibit a calm and confident demeanor to their children.

He cautions that while news seems to change almost every hour with the pandemic, it's important to stick with facts and be cautious of speculations. "We know the number of cases we have. We know how this disease is spread. When we focus on the facts, it's easier to calm the anxiety."