Early Childhood News

Talking With Kids about Coronavirus

By Catherine Greisch, PsyD

As the public conversation about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) grows and significant steps are being taken to reduce the spread of the illness in our community, young children may start to worry about themselves and the people they know. As an important grown-up in a young child’s life, you can help to address their worry and questions, and model healthy behaviors to keep your kids and family safe.

In order to be the bigger, stronger, and wiser grown up that your child needs you to be, it’s important to stay informed. Kids feel safer when the adults around them are calm and confident. Look to trusted sources of up-to-date information on COVID-19 from:

Tips for Talking With Your Kids

Kids can become distressed by repeated news or images about the illness and its impact. Consider limiting your child’s exposure to the ongoing media coverage about COVID-19. Here are some tips for talking with your kids about the news:

  • Stay calm and reassuring
    Kids react to what you say and how you say it. It’s helpful to show them that you can handle what’s happening and that you will do all that you can to keep them safe.
  • Let them know they can talk to you
    Being available and responsive when kids have questions, show worry, or have strong feelings goes a long way. As the wonderful Mr. Rogers once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”
  • Provide accurate and honest information in an age-appropriate way.
    Focus on the facts, and on what you are doing to stay safe and keep them healthy. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters. You can tell them that even though you don’t know all the answers right now, when you learn more you will share it with them.

    • For example, if your child asks why some people are wearing masks, you can say, Sometimes people wear masks when they are sick. When they are all better, they stop wearing masks.
    • If your child is asking about schools/childcare/activities being canceled, you can tell them Lots of grown-ups are working really hard to keep people safe and healthy.
    • If your child is worried that he or she might get sick, you can tell them, Everybody gets sick sometimes. If you get sick, I (or another caregiver) will take care of you until you’re better. Pretend play with medical roles (doctor or nurse with dolls or stuffed animals) can help kids focus on how people take care of others when they are sick.
  • Teach kids how to reduce the spread of germs
    • Remind children to stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing or sick.
    • Remind them to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow, then throw the tissue into the trash.
    • Tell kids, Try to keep your hands out of your mouth, nose, and eyes. This will help keep germs out of your body.
    • Make handwashing a habit.Teach kids to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (sing the ABCs or Happy Birthday twice!), especially after they come in from outside, before eating, after coughing or sneezing or blowing their nose and, of course, after using the bathroom.
  • Watch for signs of children’s heightened anxiety
    • Children may not have the words to express their worry, but you may see signs of it. They may get cranky, be more clingy, have trouble sleeping, or seem distracted. Stay calm and reassuring, and try to keep daily routines (naptime, bedtime) as consistent as possible for your child.

News of the coronavirus COVID-19 is everywhere, and many parents are wondering how to discuss the epidemic in a way that will be reassuring and not make kids more worried than they already may be. Here is some advice Jamie Howard, PhD, Clinical Psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Keeping Yourself Calm

If you notice that you are feeling anxious, take some time to calm down before trying to have a conversation or answer your child’s questions. Knowing the facts about COVID-19 and understanding the actual risk to you and your family can make the situation less stressful. Taking care of yourself and helping others to cope with stress will make our community stronger. Here are some ideas for coping with the current anxiety:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing or reading about the pandemic nonstop can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body: deep breaths, stretching, going for a long walk, resting, and avoiding alcohol and drugs are all good ways to take care of yourself.
  • Practice social distancing, but stay in touch with your loved ones—call or video chat with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

For more information:

American Academy of Pediatrics
Zero To Three: Parenting Resources
Messages for parents, school staff, and providers
Caring for Children in a Disaster
Managing Stress Related to COVID-19
CDPHE: What to do when schools are closed
Coronavirus and Parenting
PBS: How to Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus
ColorinColorado: Multilingual Resources for Schools
Child Care Aware: What Child Care Providers Need to Know
Coronavirus & Poverty: Resources for Coloradans

Catherine Greisch, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with Jefferson Center for Mental Health. Catherine serves as coordinator of the LAUNCH Together Jefferson County Partners, working to promote early childhood social emotional health and effective systems collaboration across our community. 

Sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, Zero To Three, National Public Radio, CO Dept. of Public Health & Environment, Child Mind Institute.