How to Explain the Coronavirus Pandemic to Kids

COVID-19 could overrun hospitals, kill the elderly, and make millions of Americans very very sick. But don't tell your kids that.

Originally Published: 
Ivy Johnson for Fatherly

There’s no way around it: The novel coronavirus is shaking up your kid’s life. There’s no school, no playdates, parents look sort of frightened when they go outside, and hand washing is the new national pastime. Still, for most kids so far, this is little more than “an interesting change in routine,” says Katherine Cowan, the director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists. That’s not to say they aren’t without questions — or stress. When all the grown-ups are worried, your kids are going to start to get anxious too.

First things first, let your child’s curiosity guide your discussion. If they don’t mind their new regimen and aren’t asking about the virus, or if they’re too anxious to discuss it, don’t push the subject. But most kids can handle the basics: There is a virus going around, and they have to stay away from other people, for now, to keep themselves and their neighbors safe. Most kids don’t get very sick with the virus, but some may get it and not know they have it — which is why they can’t go to school or see grandma and grandpa. If a child is stressed with concern, explain that in the big picture, not many people are sick, but we all have to stop the spread of germs to keep more people from becoming ill.

FAQs from a toddler

Q: Why are you mad, daddy?

A: “I’m sorry I got angry. I am going to count to ten and take a deep breath. 1, 2, 3, 4…10. There. That makes me feel much better.”

Toddlers pick up on emotion. So if you let anxiety build up and burst out in anger — or they perceive your anxiety as anger — an apology is in order. Be performative in your sorries. After all, you’re leading by example and showing them how someone goes from a 9 to a 1.

The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Nurses suggest parents first find out what the kids think they know. Then, correct their misgivings. For toddlers who don’t understand what’s happening, model positive attitudes to keep them calm. When your anxiety inevitably slips and your toddler gets worried, be sure to give them lots of emotional support. When it comes to pre-K through elementary, stick to the broad strokes of information. Include plenty of reassurances that you will keep them safe and help them get better if they do get sick. Teach them simple ways to be safe, like washing their hands for at least twenty seconds, the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” once. Those in late elementary school and early middle school are more aware of the virus, but you will probably need to help them separate rumor from fact. Teens in late middle school and high school can have adult-level discussions.

FAQs from a preschooler

Q: Why can’t I go to school or play with friends?

A: There’s a sickness going around, and it spreads when people are close together. Our family and other families are staying away from each other right now so they don’t spread the sickness. It’s all to keep ourselves safe.

Q: Am I going to get sick?

A: Probably not. Most kids aren’t getting sick. But if you do, I’ll be here to care for you.

Young people are not at high risk for COVID-19, so teenagers, in particular, may not want to adhere to social distancing. “Regardless of the situation, they tend to think that they are immune to risk,” Cowan says. “Setting down harsh rules may not go so well.” To set boundaries everyone is happy with, make them together — a method that works with younger kids too. Collaborate on a schedule that leaves time for studying and social media to help them stay connected.

FAQS from an elementary schooler

Q: Am I going to get sick?

A: By being very clean, you’re less likely to get sick. Wash your hands often — especially before you eat and after you use the bathroom and blow your nose. If you have to sneeze, do it into a tissue or your elbow. If you do get sick, I’ll be here to take care of you.

Q: Are grandma and grandpa in danger?

A: Older people are more likely to get sick from this virus. But grandma and grandpa are being safe, washing their hands and not getting close to other people. And we’re keeping them safe by not visiting them right now so we don’t spread any germs we have.

Some children may be anxious about their health, their family’s health, or even the health of strangers across the world. Others may be upset by the change in routine. To assuage their concerns, recognize their distress and address it directly, but don’t pretend you have all the answers. The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Nurses suggest to focus on what you do know:

“While we don’t know where and to what extent the disease may spread here in the United States, we do know that it is contagious, that the severity of illness can vary from individual to individual, and that there are steps we can take to prevent the spread of infection. Acknowledging some level of concern, without panicking, is appropriate and can result in taking actions that reduce the risk of illness. Helping children cope with anxiety requires providing accurate prevention information and facts without causing undue alarm.”

More than what you say, how you hold yourself matters. Even babies and toddlers can pick up on your stress and get stressed out themselves. Be aware of your own reactions to the news and make sure to put in the time and self-care to relieve your own anxiety. Exercise and routines can also reduce your kid’s worry and you can always fall back on distracting them with music and their favorite books or movies. If these methods don’t work to soothe severe anxiety, it is probably time to reach out to a mental health professional.

FAQs from a teenager

If young people aren’t getting sick, why can’t I hang out with my friends?

Young people are getting sick, though they are less likely to have severe complications and some may not seem sick at all. In fact, it’s people that don’t seem sick that are passing on COVID-19 in the majority of cases. You should practice social distancing even though you feel fine because you could have the coronavirus without knowing it and pass it to someone who is elderly or has chronic disease and is at higher risk of becoming very ill.

When will things go back to normal?

We don’t know. Experts estimate that it could be a couple of months before we can stop social distancing. It took about two months for the case numbers to stop climbing in China, though it could be different in the United States.

Finally, be mindful of the news broadcasts you play out loud in the house. “Spending a great deal of time listening to the reports and the newscasts and people’s comments and the rising numbers isn’t going to do almost any of us, but particularly kids, any good,” Cowan says. It can be useful to discuss broadcasts with teenagers, but at some point, you need to just turn it off.

The overarching goal is not to explain the complicated unknowns to the kids, but to empower them with a responsibility — to wash hands, stay home, and thus help stem the spread of a virus — and then to remind them that we’re all in this together and you’re there to take care of them. That’s the solace they’re looking for.

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