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Talking to kids about COVID-19: UW-Madison expert offers tips

March 16, 2020 By Käri Knutson

The COVID-19 outbreak has people fearful and confused. News of more cancellations of major events, images of people wearing face masks, and increased numbers of those who are infected and who have died serve as constant reminders that things have changed for the foreseeable future.

It’s stressful enough when you’re a grownup. But for kids, it can be especially scary.

Travis Wright Photo by Sarah Maughan UW–Madison

What do we tell children in times of uncertainty? There are no easy answers but Travis Wright, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the School of Education, offers some suggestions.

“Trauma shifts our view of the world, making it seem like a dangerous place where fear and harm might be expected,” Wright says. “As a result, children who have experienced trauma are prone to worry and often assume the worst.”

Wright is a nationally recognized expert on resilience and emotionally responsive teaching, especially for children developing in the midst of adversity. Before coming to UW–Madison in 2012, he worked as a school-based mental health counselor, public school teacher, and early childhood educator in Washington, D.C., and Boston public schools.

“This has sensitized me to the importance of anticipating children’s concerns and reassuring them,” Wright says. “Likewise, predictable routines, lots of patience, and a consistent, supportive approach are all ways to build positive relationships and trust with children so they will be able to receive your support in scary or uncertain times.”

He’s offered guidance in the past about talking to kids after school shootings. The coronavirus is new territory for everyone but some of the themes about safety are similar.

Do we really need to talk to kids about it? Are kids, especially younger ones, paying much attention?

Absolutely. Discussions of the coronavirus are everywhere. Children are inundated with social media, adult conversations, and in their own social networks. I find the school bus, with older children, is often where my girls get much of their misinformation. It is important to meet children where they are and answer their concerns. Be honest and accurate but not alarmist.

What’s a good place to start?

Understanding what they’ve heard, what they are fearing or thinking about it, and what questions they have is a good first place to start. As a general rule, I think it is always best to ask first and then meet children where they are. Many times they are wondering in a way that is very different than an adult perspective. If we respond without understanding what is on their mind, we might inadvertently make things worse, point out issues that are more challenging for them to understand, or raise concerns they might not yet have considered.

Any suggestions on language we should use? Should it be different for different ages?

Often, it does makes sense to vary our language based on the child’s age and comprehension. But, when it comes to the coronavirus, the basic message will likely be the same for all of us regardless of age.

I’d suggest something like, “The coronavirus is a germ that can make people sick, just like the flu, cold, or a stomach bug. Since it is a new germ, we don’t know much about it, which is why is getting lots of attention. People are talking about it lots right now so that we can figure out how best to keep more people from getting sick.”

Many children will probably ask what happens if they do get sick. Again, I’d suggest being honest. Something like, “Some people who get COVID-19 don’t even know they have it, and most people feel like they have a bad cold until they get better. But, a tiny number of people can get very sick. Usually, these people are already sick from something else and their bodies don’t have lots of energy left over to fight COVID-19. Since you are young and healthy, you would probably feel yucky for a few days and be back to normal.”

As a general rule, younger children require brief, simple information that reassures them. Older children will be more vocal in asking questions, and may need help in separating rumors from facts. Older children will be able to discuss the issue so encourage them to seek out their own information from reliable sources. This can help them feel a sense of control.

(Editor’s note: If your child or other loved ones are at elevated risk for COVID-19, please consult with your health care provider for more specific guidance.)

I don’t have all the answers so how am I supposed to answer their endless questions?

Just listen and be supportive. If you don’t know the answer, I’d say, “I don’t really know the answer to that, but we can try to find out if someone does.” However, if it feels like the child is beginning to spiral in fear, you might offer something like, “I understand that it can feel scary, but your teachers, our doctors and scientists, and we are going to do everything we can to protect you and keep you safe. Try your best to focus on how many people love you and are going to work to make sure nothing bad happens to you.”

I want them to wash their hands, obviously. But I don’t want to scare them into doing it. Is there a balanced way to do this?

Hopefully, good hygiene practices are already a part of your family’s routine. Just remind children that they are already doing things to keep themselves safe. But emphasize that it is extra important to make healthy choices when people around us may be getting sick.

I’m scared. How can I possibly reassure my child?

If you are truly afraid, it will be important to work through your own anxiety first so as not to further escalate your child’s worries.  However, it is ok to say, “I’m feeling a little worried too but we are going to take care of ourselves and make good choices to keep ourselves as healthy as possible.”

Can I make it worse by bringing it up?

If you use the strategies that we’ve previously discussed, it won’t hurt and it could help the child feel closer to you and more safe to know you are watching out for her.

This won’t be the last time I have to talk about scary issues with my child. Are there some universal messages that can be helpful?

I think the suggestions I made earlier will serve parents well in most difficult conversations. And, remember, that if you keep the lines of communication open and have regular, caring conversations with your children — they will always come back to you with additional questions or things that don’t quite understand. As long as we value children for what they bring to us, we often have the chance to do and re-do conversations until children get answers that will help them feel safer and more at peace.

Any other general tips?

  • Make yourself available when children do raise concerns.
  • Avoid excessive blaming of the government, other countries, etc.
  • Monitor social media and television viewing to prevent children from becoming saturated with scary messages.
  • Maintain a normal routine.
  • Know the symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Review and model basic hygiene and healthy practices for protection.
  • Communicate with your child’s teacher to ensure that your messages are aligned.