During this confusing time filled with uncertainty, fear, upheaval, and many unanswered questions, it can be hard to navigate your emotions, stay connected, and be calm. At the same time you’re being asked to care for your children’s fear, uncertainty, unsettledness, questions, and big emotions. It certainly is a trying time for everyone, and being a parent can add another layer of difficulty.
Whether you have talked to your children directly about COVID-19 or not, I am certain they already know something. Our children are connected to us. If we are stressed, they are stressed, and vice versa. Most children have overheard conversations or they have access to a device and news. Because schools are closed all across the county, they know something is up.
It is important for parents to talk to their children about what is happening in the world. I feel it is preferable for parents to start the conversation so they can be the one giving the information. They can be aware of what they have already absorbed, and can help their kids make sense of what they have heard. In addition to addressing COVID-19 and social distancing, I suggest checking in each day to see if your kids have questions as they process ever-changing information. This check-in can be formal, or you can talk over a dinner. Ask them how they are feeling or if they have any questions. Your kids can be engaged in an activity like drawing at the same time. Over time, your children will trust they can come to you with their emotions and questions. Many small conversations can sometimes work better than one long, very informative conversation.
Many sources are advising parents to stay calm so their children can stay calm. I do believe it is always important for parents to have a plan for self-care especially during times of high stress. I go into ideas for parents to balance their fears in this new uncanny time of our lives in my blog “Parents: How do we process our own fears and those of our children?” That being said, I think we have to be real; we can absolutely filter our fear when we are talking to them, but I think it is reassuring to them to know that we are also concerned and uneasy about what is happening. It shows that we are empathetic to what they are feeling and it shows that we are being honest with them.
Before going into how to talk to children of different ages, I think it is important to identify some of the questions they may have depending on their age. “What is the coronavirus?” “Can I get the coronavirus?” “Will (you, grandma, my teacher) get the coronavirus? “What will happen if I get sick?” “Will I die?” “When can I go back to school?” “When can I see my friends, go to the playground, go to grandma’s?” “If you are home, why do you have to work?” “Why are people wearing masks?” “Why did we have to cancel my birthday party/vacation?” “Will we run out of food?” “How long will this last?” “Are you scared?”
You may not be able to answer all of these questions. You can empathize with them about how they are feeling. You can let them know their question is a good question. You can let them know people in the world such as doctors, scientists, teachers, and researchers are working on finding these answers. You can assure that as soon as you know, you will let them know. You can help them to find alternative ways to meet their needs. If your tween is wondering when they will see their friends, you might be able to set up a virtual hangout. If your 6 year old wants to know if their teacher is alright, you might be able to reach out to them. You can point to all the people in the community who are helping. They are having these thoughts so it is best to address them. Try to take a deep breath and stay calm. Listen to their questions, empathize with their concerns, talk, and explore answers, alternatives, and solutions where possible.
Age-specific ways to talk about the virus
All children develop at their own pace, and these stages are not set in stone. You are the parent and you know your child’s level of awareness but what follows are some guidelines for how to talk to your kids about COVID-19.
Birth – 2 years old
I understand you will not be talking deeply to your baby about COVID-19 and self-quarantine but even though a child of this age is mostly nonverbal, they are absorbing information and can notice a change in their routine. By the age of 6 months, babies know their caregiver. If they are used to going to daycare and now they are not, they may notice. If you usually go on daily walks to the playground or eat Sunday dinners at Grandma’s, they may feel this shift. At this age a simple acknowledgement might be enough. You could snuggle them up in your arms, sway them, and say “We are going to be spending more time in our beautiful house with each other, and playing with the toys we have here.”
2 – 4 years old
Do not underestimate the intelligence of a 2 or 3 year old: They are smart with a capital S. One of the main functions of their brains is to absorb and store information. A video circulated about two 3-year-old twins discussing “quarantine” and “germs go away.” They will also notice and possibly express distress about an interruption to their routine. This is an age where they like to mimic and act out what they see. If you want to talk about germs, you can explain they are teeny tiny bugs that live on our hands. You can show them how to wash their hands and say “The germs are all gone!” Or show them how to cough in their sleeve. You can play house with dolls or popsicle sticks; whatever you have is great. You could show how one house has your family in it, and the other house has their grandma, or their teacher, then explain how everyone is staying in their house or neighborhood. Some children at this age have awareness of their environment but might not have the verbal ability to ask the questions they need to. Demonstrating what is happening through playdough, dolls, or acting could really help them express what they are thinking.
4 – 6 years old
This is the age that socializing with friends takes a huge developmental jump. At this age there is an understanding of the greater world around them, and kids have the verbal ability to ask a lot of questions. Children this age may struggle with understanding why they cannot go to school, the playground, or playdates. Play is also a great way to help them make sense of the world. When you talk about the coronavirus, you can explain how a virus hides in germs and how germs are spread. You can try to speak their language. You can explain how a virus is similar to the flu, but this virus spreads easier, so we have to be more careful.
You can use some simple drawings to show germs spreading. There are fun, simple science experiments like the pepper and soap experiment. Children have an idea of their community and community helpers. You can explain how doctors and nurses are helping. You can assure them there are many people in their community working to help find answers. If they miss their friends, you can empathize, and say “You really love playing with your friends, huh?” “I bet they really miss you too.” “I am sad I cannot play with my friends too.” “What is something we can do at home that can be fun?”
7 – 12 years old
There are a lot of stages of development and variations from child to child at this stage. This is when the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational and scientific thoughts, starts to develop. Kids in this age range may be able to understand the situation better, but they can also understand the enormity and seriousness of this pandemic as well. As we know, this can be frightening for adults so it can be even more frightening to children. I would suggest exploring answers to their questions and helping them understand the information they have received. This visual was very helpful to me to understand social distancing, the potential spread of the COVID-19, and flattening the curve.
As with other stages, in this stage it is important to listen and give many opportunities for your child to express themselves. You can empathize with their concerns and try to answer their questions as completely as possible. You can try to find alternatives to in-person socializing with their friends. You can use their input to create routines and activities. You can talk to them about finding pastimes that will help them feel calm and work on finding things to be grateful for.
13 to 18 years old
There is a lot going on in the brain and body at this stage. Teens are pruning their neurons, they are in some stage of puberty, their prefrontal cortex is developing, the emotional center of their brain is full on, and their amygdala is increasing dopamine and dopamine receptors. All of this leads to erratic behavior, reward-seeking behavior, irrational thinking, and a higher risk of addiction and stress. An overwhelming time of development just got more overwhelming and a lot of the tools they use to stay calm may not be available.
Teenagers usually rely heavily on their peers and start to move their gaze away from their parents. Teenagers can google faster and more widely than we can; they are very informed. I encourage you to look at information together, watch videos, and talk about this information with them. Ask them to find you information. If they are playing video games to remain calm, try to join them. If they are into makeup videos, maybe they will do your makeup. If they have new music they love, ask to listen to it. Find funny videos on YouTube together. If you are going for a walk, doing yoga, or working on a project, see if they will join.
I understand they may make it seem like they are the only one suffering, and being stuck in the house with you is their own personal end-of-the-world scenario, but to them it may authentically feel that way. Not being with their friends or prom getting cancelled is a very big deal to them. They are comparing their quarantine to everyone else’s. Hold on to them, and offer them as many calming tools as you can.
Regardless of the age, even if you are with an adult, one of my favorite centering things to do is to connect through touch. I hold the person close to me, either their back is on my chest, or we are hugging chest to chest. I take a long, exaggerated, deep breath, so the other person can feel my lungs fill with air, I pause, and slowly exhale. I repeat as many times as needed. Look each other in the eye. Remember self-care in any form. Be empathetic. Be flexible.
Lastly, remember you got this! And you’re not alone. I’m here to help, just reach out.
Rachel Maietta is a mom, certified parent coach, preschool teacher, and founder of Wholehearted Parent Coaching. She has worked with children of all ages, and loves to support parents. If you are interested in coaching and would like to start a 10-week parenting journey, you can receive a free consultation. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram for blogs, ideas, and parenting information, or use the form below to contact her directly.