How to talk to kids about the coronavirus

1:32 pm on 18 March 2020

By John Cowan*

Opinion - "You'll be alright. We'll get through". Comfort and reassurance are what our kids need from us in anxious times. And truth.

Stock image representing school psychologist talking to young boy.

Photo: 123rf

Unless your child is very young or living in a bubble, they already know about Covid-19 from school, the news and the constant roar of discussion going on all around them.

If we dissemble about its seriousness, or avoid talking to them about it at all, they may come to doubt our integrity or competence. That would be tragic because they need to believe the big people in their world are informed and confident if they are to get through this weird period without getting too rattled.

How are your children doing? Amongst my adult friends, some are blasé and some are overwhelmed and anxious. Children often follow suit.

Children read parents far more than they read news feeds. They tune into our anxiety. After the Canterbury earthquakes, children seemed more worried by their parents' distress than by the shaking and damage.

They are also blessed (or cursed!) by having inherited our emotional wiring. If you are feeling a bit panicky then you can sympathise very easily with your children who may well have the same nervy emotions.

They may have got their anxiety from us, but they can get something else from us, too: courage! "You can tell I'm worried about this illness. I really think we are going to be okay but we do have to brave." There should be medals for parents who act bravely for their children in spite of their own fear.

One of the best antidotes to anxiety for children is positive action. As well as giving them reassurance, give them something to do. Reassure them that if children catch the virus it doesn't usually make them very sick - it is more like a bad cold and they recover quite quickly - but then say how very important it is that we protect the people who really are at risk.

Tell them the virus is far more of a worry for people who are old and have other health problems. That's why they have to be very careful about hygiene to protect the family, especially grandparents, because you can be spreading the virus to them even if you don't feel sick.

Children can be surprisingly altruistic. They may be more careful about hygiene for the sake of others than for themselves. Also, practically helping and caring for others (cautiously if they are sick) really does build their own emotional resilience as well as their character.

Your child will also have picked up on the disruptions the virus causing. Grown-ups seem worried by it … should our kids be? I have no idea what is going down in your world at the moment. Maybe your business is threatened, or your job is on the line. Maybe this is going to set back your finances for a long, long time. That is serious and grim and you have my sympathy. Will it impact your child? Yes. But I am sure you will still be able to give your child the most essential things she needs.

If your child feels safe and loved, you already have your pass mark as a parent. Your adult dreams may suddenly have lurched beyond your immediate grasp but your child can still have a wonderful childhood. "Honey, you know I've been pretty sad about the business, but I am so glad we've got each other. It might mean a few changes but we will be all right."

Chats at bed-time are always a wonderful idea, though make sure you wind it up on a positive note or on another topic - you don't really want their minds wheel-spinning on Covid-19 when they are trying to go to sleep.

Watching or reading the news together can be a great way to start a conversation with your child. You can quiz them about what they understand of it. You may need to add to the stack of information your clever youngster is acquiring about the virus, and you may need to prune out some misinformation as well.

Our mature perspective is something Google cannot give to our kids. We may be confused and uncertain as well, but at least we have decades of experience in interpreting the grim serious manner of news anchors and filtering out the more alarming shrieks in the media.

We know a little more than them about how communities step up and help each other in crises. We know about Police, ambulances, Civil Defence and health services. We can read graphs and interpret numbers, and see why we do need to worry about Covid-19, but why our children do not really need to.

This virus is serious, and my crystal ball is as hazy as anyone else's, but I would confidently tell any child, "You'll be alright. We'll get through".

*John Cowan is the former senior writer and presenter for Parenting Place. He is currently a freelance writer and broadcaster.

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