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How to Talk to Your Kids about Coronavirus

Posted on Mar 16, 2020

This is a photo of a parent talking to a child.

The United States, and much of the world, is consumed by the latest developments and rapidly changing landscape in the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Most of our lives currently revolve around this topic, and it’s hard to look or go anywhere without seeing the toll it’s taking — from family members being quarantined to school closures to travel restrictions. While we’re trying to protect our physical bodies from the virus, we cannot overlook the impact this is having on our family’s mental health. Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, director of psychology and neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, walks us through how we can help our kids through this time.

My child is fearful of the coronavirus. What can I do?

This is a great time to develop a habit of setting aside five minutes every day to check in on any concerns or fears your child or teen is having. During this time, it’s important to listen to their concerns and reassure your child that everyone is doing everything they can to stay healthy and safe. Be clear that this a risk for older adults in general and that we’re finding that children tend to not be as affected. Remind your child about the importance of washing our hands, coughing into our arms and maintaining a safe distance from others especially if they might seem sick. This daily conversation is a great habit to keep even after the coronavirus outbreak passes.

How much should you tell your children?

When we’re talking with our children, we want to be developmentally appropriate about the information that we’re sharing, but we really want to make sure that information is also transparent. 

For younger kids, it’s about reinforcing washing our hands. For older kids, you may want to get into a little bit more information about the virus and how it spreads, but also talking to them, especially adolescents, about cancellations of activities they may have been looking forward to. 

What’s the best way to handle cancellations, closures and social distancing?

For our teenagers, a lot of them rely on social media anyway, so it’s good to remind them of using social media for their communication. It’s also a great time for families to reconnect, like doing that scrapbooking we’ve been holding off on, or starting to do some family board games together. Explain how this is short term and it’s for the health of everyone.

How do you talk to kids about not seeing their grandparents if social distancing becomes necessary?

That can be really difficult because this is a major component of the family. The good thing is that we have electronics and social media to be able to keep in touch with them through FaceTime or other video means. Remind them that this is just for the time being and you’re doing it for everyone’s safety, but we’ll still be able to keep up those regular contacts with Grandma and Grandpa.

What else can we do to uplift our mental health?

It’s important to remind ourselves of what our coping skills are and model those for our kids, whether that be deep breathing, reading or journaling, for example. Maintaining routines will help, too, like keeping set bedtimes, wake up times and meal times. Try to also enjoy family time by doing activities that don’t involve electronics.  

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