What to Say to Children and Teens About COVID-19

By: Collett Smart

Like many reading this, I am a parent to 3 children – and the talk of COVID-19 hasn’t left our house much in the last few weeks, especially since the flow of information (and misinformation) has picked up. It’s difficult to ignore isn’t it?

Reports are everywhere. On every screen, in every feed, in every board meeting, work site and school staff meeting. I think many of us have vacillated between the ‘what nows?’ and the ‘what ifs?’

We know that we can’t shield our children, because they will hear about it anyway, from peers, siblings, grandma… But how much is too much information? And what is age appropriate?

As a start

Our children look to the adults in their lives for behavioural cues. They learn from us about how concerned they should be about anything unknown or new. Even without words, our behaviour can inadvertently create a climate of distress in our homes. So it is important that we have support people to turn to, if we are feeling anxious ourselves.

Normalise Anxiety
Concern for the unknown or some new disease is a perfectly normal reaction. Encourage your children that not all anxiety is bad. It is our brain’s brilliant way of keeping us safe from and alert about danger. Anxiety works like an alarm system, which prompts us to think of ways to look after ourselves. It’s just that an oversensitive alarm system can lead us to irrational thoughts and fears, which affect our healthy daily functioning. So how do we keep this alarm system in check, during this time? (I’ll get to that soon…)

Monitor Your Child
Even within developmental stages, children will display differences in how they respond to certain pieces of news or information. Just because your child does not verbalise that they feel anxious (they may not even recognise anxiety in themselves), does not mean they are not struggling with something they have heard.

You know your child best, so looks for signs that they are not doing well – i.e. regression, sleep issues (struggling to fall asleep, waking up in the night and worrying, nightmares), changes in appetite, changes in behaviour (acting out, withdrawal, bouts of crying for seemingly small things), separation anxiety (not wanting to go to school, usual activities or be left alone), sudden headaches or tummy aches and drop in school performance.

What to say

At this time, it is a good idea to be proactive. Start by finding out what your child has heard and what they know, before launching into too many details.

This can be done by asking open ended questions like, “Can you tell me what you heard about that?”

You can also ask specifically if they have any fears or concerns. Keep in mind that your child’s primary response to ‘scary’ or unknown news will be emotional, rather than intellectual.

The real question behind their question is usually, “Am I safe?”

Provide Emotional Support
When children come home with stories from a class mate who said that you or grandma might die, this could be the underlying fear of the COVID-19 stories, for them. Rather than simply say, “Oh, I’ll be fine.” Or “That’s a silly thing to say.” Acknowledge the emotion with, “That must have felt a scary to hear. I can tell you are worried about it.”

Do lots of listening. Ask more open ended questions and then listen some more. Even if your child’s question or fear seems ‘silly’ – if it is important to them it should be important to you. This helps your child feel heard and develops a sense that you care about them.

How much to say

Tailor your approach to each child’s age, maturity level, ability to process information and exposure to reports about the virus.

Molly Gardner, a paediatric psychologist told TIME magazine, “Being informed and being anxious are two different things… The more we beat around the bush with kids, the more they might get confused.”

Pre-Schoolers and Early Primary School Years
In very young children, shielding is the best option. However, even pre-schoolers pick up information. Your pre-schooler or early primary child might even ask you a specific question.

Stick with some basic facts about people around the world looking after others. That most people with the virus have recovered. Try to steer your child away from fear. Essentially they need reassurance that they are safe with you. That your job is to look after them. Play, hug, read stories and emotionally connect daily. Teach them about good hygiene, which is a great life skill anyway. Turn off the news when they are around and keep your COVID-19 conversations for when they are in bed.

Pre-teens and Teens
I have written before, that adults can sometimes assume their teens are coping with the overload of media reported trauma – while quietly – they are imploding.

For many teens, their imaginations (fuelled by sometimes unreliable social media reported trauma and a constant stream of graphic images) can magnify the events to even greater levels of terror.

Our tweens and teens can usually cope with frank discussions. Again, stick to the facts. However, highlighting the misinformation and hype, represented in some media reports, can teach young people to become more critical media users themselves. Find realistic and trusted news sources that your family can follow. Brainstorm with teens, some practical steps to follow.

What To Do
A study about empowering families during a healthcare crisis recommends the CARE approach. Engaging the CARE principles helps young people and families feel empowered. It reduces, and may even improve the risk of anxiety and trauma responses.

1. CHOICES – Offer power in a powerless environment

This might look like:

  • Channelling their anxiety into useful action. i.e. everyone can do something to help slow the spread of disease, using hand sanitiser, by coughing into your elbow, washing your hands regularly.
  • Distraction – When we fixate on negative information our anxiety grows. Yet, if we turn our attention elsewhere, it shrinks. Ask your child to think of some distraction activities, e.g. Doing their homework, jumping on the trampoline, playing a game or watching a favourite show.
  • Encouraging teens to take a break from, or at least limit exposure to, news and social media reports on the virus.

2. AGENDA – Let children and families know what to expect and what is expected of them.

  • This could be by explaining what the school’s plan is for learning, if the school were to close for a few weeks. (Year 12 students might be especially anxious about this).
  • Talk about what steps you would take if a family member did contract the virus (because kids are wondering about this!) What is your family plan?
  • Think about what activities they would like to do during this time.

3. RESILIENCE – Highlight strengths and re frame negatives

  • Ask your children to think about a time when they were unwell and did recover.
  • Research suggests that teenagers feel better when they turn their attention to supporting others during difficulty. There is great power in volunteering.
  • Talk about what you would do to support grandparents, family members or neighbours who are vulnerable or have a disability. E.g. Collect and drop off food parcels, toiletries and medicines.

My favourite quote on re framing negatives is by Fred Rogers,
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

4. EMOTIONAL SUPPORT – Recognise and normalise common fears and responses

  • Keep providing daily emotional first aid. Check in on how your children are feeling.
  • You might like to help your child begin a daily (short term) journal or worry box, where they can write down their fears. Then be sure to balance these with something from principles 1, 2 and 3.
  • If you are a family that prays, spend time praying; for those in charge of making decisions, those working at finding a vaccine, doctors and people who are unwell.

One last thought – Find some humour

Humour can often normalise our responses to the unknown. There are so many toilet paper memes going around. See who can find the best one to share each day.

Article supplied with thanks to Raising Teenagers

About the Author: Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. She lives with her husband and 3 children in Sydney, Australia. The heart of Collett’s work is to support and bring Hope to parents of tweens and teens.