Fear, Stress and Sadness: How to Talk to Children about COVID-19
All children, regardless of age, developmental level or health status, could be feeling stress due to the ways in which their routines and lives have changed in response to Covid-19. Here are a few tips for talking with your children during this time:
Acknowledge All Feelings
- While children express stress in different ways than adults, they may still have many of the same feelings as adults. Sadness, worry, anger and feelings of loss may be common.
- Before moving to conversations about hope, ways to stay safe, and fun activities to pass the time, it is important to meet children right where they are emotionally.
- Validate your child’s emotions, “It is okay to be feel sad.” And let them know that you have felt that way too “I really miss seeing my friends, too.”
- Encourage expression of emotions in age appropriate ways. For example, art for younger children and journaling for older children.
Honesty is Best
- Even though you are doing your best to keep your child’s life feel as “normal” as possible, children can sense the changes going on around them, and they may have overheard adult conversations and news.
- Children also sense adult worry and anxiety.
- Children fear the unknown, and they often imagine things far worse than reality, so avoiding the discussion of Covid-19 with your children could cause more worry.
- To help your children to feel safe, explain Covid-19 in an honest, yet age appropriate way. See the resources below for age specific help.
- Begin by asking your children what they already know about Covid-19 or what they have heard, and build upon this knowledge. Your goal is to dispel misinformation and fears, not to cause more worry.
- For older children, use specific words children might have heard and ask if they understand the meaning (for example: social distancing, coronavirus, quarantine, pandemic)
- You don’t need to overwhelm children with information or great detail, but be willing to answer their questions openly, simply, and honestly.
- Follow your child’s lead. They will let you know when they have had enough information by asking to play or showing disinterest in the conversation.
Reassure Your Children
- Choose the right time to talk to your children. When you are feeling anxious or worried, this is not the best time. Take time to calm yourself before having important conversations with your children.
- Focus on what you are doing as a family to stay safe (washing hands, staying home, not attending social events, keeping distance from others while playing outside, and maintaining a clean home).
- Discuss how healthcare workers are doing their very best to take care of people who do get sick.
- Explain that most children are staying healthy, and most children have mild symptoms even if they get sick with this virus.
Keep Checking In
- As with any stressful topic, emotions and questions may change and develop over time.
- Revisit the conversation as things change, and be willing to discuss with your children when new questions arise.
- Watch children for signs of stress such as, lack of interest in typical play activities, trouble sleeping, or regression in development and contact your healthcare provider if needed.
- Reassure children that you will always be honest with them.
- Calm your children by explaining this will not last forever.
- Routines and predictability help children to feel safe.
- Keep old routines such as mealtimes and bedtimes.
- Create new routines and allow children to have control and choice in developing these routines.
Age Specific Resources
- Printable book explaining Covid-19 (young school age)
- Video explaining Covid-19
- Comic explaining Covid-19
For other questions regarding COVID-19 and children, Cook Children's has developed a resource page with information for parents.
Written by Cara Bozarth, a child life professional and clinical educator at Cook Children's.