Talking to Children about the Coronavirus

Are you a parent, a guardian or another significant adult in the life of a child who is worried about the current coronavirus pandemic? At times like this, the most important thing you can do as an adult is to make your child safe and calm, and strengthen their sense of being in control. To do that, you need to find out what your child already knows, and what they need.

Our Swedish child helpline member, Bris, has some advice for adults on how to talk to children about the coronavirus.

Be responsive and observant

We can assume that most children already know about the coronavirus. Many will be affected by the changes they can see happening around them. Such changes include, for example:

  • Adults’ concerns and focus on the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Changes in the child’s everyday life, such as schools and nurseries, and cancelled parties.
  • News reports showing images of empty grocery stores, people wearing face masks, and statistics talking about the numbers of sick people and people who have died.

Many children are coming to understand that a virus is something diffuse and invisible. They are learning that no one really knows how exactly the coronavirus infects people. Some children will say that they are scared, but their concerns can also be expressed in many other ways. They may show anxiety about things that do not usually bother them. They may start to avoid doing certain things altogether. They might even start to exercise a greater need for control, for example on knowing where every family member is at any given time. Some children might find it difficult to fall asleep, or they might not want to sleep alone. And while some children deal with their concerns by asking a lot of questions, others prefer not to.

We need to be responsive to what our children need, and we need to help them find a balance. While some children are helped by talking and getting answers to their questions, others may be better supported by not having to think about what is worrying them for a while.

Do not leave children alone with their questions

It is important to remember that children have a hard time evaluating what is being reported. Is it dangerous or does it just feel that way? This is where adults need to step in and help. Do not leave children alone – either by themselves or with other children – to try to make sense of the situation.

Do not assume that the child is worried

All children are different, and how a child responds to events like this is determined by several different factors, such as their age, how they are feeling, and what life is currently like for them. Past experiences can also play a role, such as previous experiences they may have had of being ill. For children who are already anxious and worried, the added fear of the coronavirus may serve to reinforce these feelings.

Calmness, security and boundaries

To make your child feel safe and calm, and to help them strengthen their sense of being in control, you must begin by finding out what your child already knows and what they need. Ask them questions: What are you thinking? What are you wondering? If the child is worried, find out what specifically they are worried about: Is it fear of being infected themselves? Or that you will be? Or their grandfather, their grandmother, other family members? That there will be a shortage of food? Show the child that you can also talk about things that may feel difficult, even when you do not have answers to all the questions.

It is important to remember that it may sometimes be necessary to set boundaries around talking about the coronavirus. Nobody feels good thinking about the things that scare us. Continuous questions from the child, especially about things you have already discussed, may be the child’s way of trying to assert some control over their situation. But this may also result in a situation where the child worries even more about things, rather than being put at ease. If the child has difficulties letting go of thoughts that concern them, answer their questions but also help them by setting some boundaries.

Inform and relieve

Give the child the information they need without oversharing. Answer their questions honestly, but do not tell them more than they need to know. If you’re not up to date on the facts, try to find child-friendly news broadcasts or video clips and discuss these together with your child. Make the reports understandable to them. Tell them that the reason the coronavirus is in the news so much isn’t just because it is dangerous for everyone, but also because the job of stopping it is so important for us all. Explain to them the reasons why it’s important to cancel trips and events, why schools and workplaces are closed, and so on.

It is important for the child to hear that adults take responsibility. Tell them that you will take responsibility for keeping them up to date, and that this is not something they gave to worry about doing themselves.

Do not convey your own worries

It is important that you do not burden the child with your own concerns, or assume that the child sees the situation the same way you do. Something that is of concern to an adult is not necessarily of concern to a child in the same way. If you are feeling worried, talk to another adult when the child is out of earshot.

Convey hope

Tell the child about all the resources available to cure the infection, the work to develop a vaccine and the care for those who have become infected. You can also reassure them that most people recover, and become completely healthy again.

Maintain everyday routines

Make life as normal as possible for the child. Help the child focus on something else. Encourage and facilitate activities for the child, preferably things that are already part of the child’s everyday life. Turn off the news, put away phones, talk about and do other things together.

Child Helpline International would like to thank our Swedish child helpline member Bris for sharing this article with us and making it available to use on our website.