Tips for Talking with Children About the Pandemic
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how we experience fear, stress, and anxiety over issues we have no control over. Just like we are always reminded to put on our oxygen mask before helping others, we need to engage in self-care and spiritual practices to sustain ourselves so we can be present for our children.
Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their fears and anxiety is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it depends on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are available to listen to them and that it is okay to raise their issues of fear and anxiety.
Help them understand that it is okay to be frightened. Communicate that being courageous does not mean being without fear. Acting in spite of that fear is what makes someone courageous. Remind them of a favorite superhero or someone they admire and share how they acted courageously, despite their fears. Read storybooks about being brave and courageous and overcoming fear.
Find out what they want to know and need to know and keep the rest out. If they are not asking about elderly family members who may be affected, don’t bring this topic up to them (or within their hearing). When working on these issues with a child, try to find out as much as you can about what they know and understand or are struggling to understand. Base your responses on what you find out.
If they don’t bring it up, start the conversation. Everyone’s lives are being disrupted by the pandemic and social distancing, so they are well aware of the circumstances of the world right now. Bring it up to let them know you are interested in them and find how they are coping with the information they are getting.
Reassure your children. When children hear about something scary or disturbing, they often relate it to themselves and start to worry about their own safety. Given that their lives have been disrupted along with everyone else’s, they will definitely be concerned about their safety. For example, you might say, "That shouldn’t happen to you because we are doing everything we can to keep each other safe.” This kind of reassurance is what children most need to hear.
Answer questions and clear up misconceptions. Don’t try to give children all the information available. The best guide is to follow the child’s lead, giving small pieces of information at a time and seeing how your child responds before deciding what to say next. This is especially true if your family is being hit economically during the social distancing. It is easy to add to their fears if these issues are not addressed, so answer honestly and compassionately while clearing up any misconceptions the child has.
Look for times when they are most likely to talk. Children often bring up serious issues while you are riding in the car because you are a captive audience. You can use this technique, too. Other opportunities might be before dinner, but avoid unpleasant conversations at bedtime unless your child brings it up. Ideally, send them off to sleep with reassurance and comfort (even if you are not feeling this yourself).
Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don't interrupt—allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond or correct them. Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree. Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Ask them if there is something they can do to help them feel safer and, if possible, do it.
Give them extra hugs if they are comfortable with it. Other reassuring touches might be squeezing a shoulder, rubbing their back, or cuddling together.
Do your best to keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of their age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During this time of crisis, your children are probably at home because of school cancellations. Help make home a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan times for participating in a favorite family activity or use this opportunity to create family activities to help you have fun while you are together. Play board games, watch a family movie, or listen to music together.
Watch for signs of stress, serious fears or anxiety. It is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your child's behaviors may change because of their response to the events happening around them. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or experience changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear with the passage of time. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them, writing about them, or play-acting them. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art or dancing to music.
Take breaks from news and social media. Teens especially may want to keep informed by gathering information about new events from the internet, television, or social media. However, it is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news and engaging in social media because constant exposure may actually heighten anxiety and fears rather than alleviate them. There is also a lot of incorrect information floating around the internet about the coronavirus, so if your older child or teen is looking for practical information, help them find reliable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
UUA compilation of resources for talking with kids about COVID-19