Talking to Your Child About Coronavirus In Ways That Ease Their Fears

Author: Steph Bayne LMFT RDT (Current HFP Parent)
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Drama Therapist

As the coronavirus begins affecting our lives more directly, many parents have wondered how to broach the subject with their children. During periods of turmoil, it can often be the unknown that is most frightening for people. It can also be hard to monitor the amount of grown-up worry that trickles down to our children. While I always recommend to families to be as open and honest with their children as possible, it’s important to do so in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Currently our preschoolers are sponges, soaking up whatever information they can from their environment. This fact paired with their proclivity to magical thinking (where they strongly believe that their thoughts and actions have a direct effect on the world) can lead to a lot of unnecessary worry and sense of responsibility. I have been recommending the following strategies to ease the burden or worry from children and work to keep it with the adults.

1) Try to monitor media that your children are exposed to. Even if it doesn’t seem like they are listening, they probably are.  Try plugging in headphones if they are around or mute the news and put on subtitles (if you don’t have a reader at home). Think of yourself as the filter of fear for your children.

2) Try to discuss the coronavirus with your children only if there will be an actual change that affects them. The increase of washing of hands can be explained as “We are going to be extra helpful to our community by washing our hands more often and using hand sanitizer whenever we leave a place. This will help to get rid of the bad germ, coronavirus, that can make us or others sick. Let’s be superheroes and defeat the bad germs!” When schools or events are cancelled, validate feelings of disappointment and then celebrate the community for working hard to keep people safe from coronavirus. “You were really looking forward to visiting grandma, it’s pretty disappointing that our trip is cancelled. I feel sad too and I’m so proud of our family working hard to be protectors for our community. We are superheroes keeping others safe!”

3)  When things feel scary for children, they need more reassurance that their attachment figures are in control and capable of keeping them safe. Reminders may need to be more frequent that it’s the adult’s job to keep the kid safe and that it’s the kid job to be a kid. “I hear that you are feeling worried about getting sick. My job is always first and foremost to keep you and our family safe, so my focus will be on that. Your job is to think about growing, learning, and playing.  For my job today, I’m going to ask you to cough into your elbow and help to remind you. For your job today, you need to eat your breakfast and decide what you want to play.”

4)  This can be a stressful time for parents. Seek ways to let your stress out so that it doesn’t overflow to kids. Set aside time to talk with other adults about your worries and to vent about your struggles–out of earshot from kids. Engage in stress reduction activities that feel good for you. It may mean that the kids have more screen time than you typically allow or that you have to reach out to your community for parenting relief, but it is so important that you are prioritizing managing your anxiety so that you can be available to manage your child’s.

HFP has a built-in community of parents who can be amazing resources for each other. As things move more toward “social distancing” find ways to stay emotionally connected and present for each other. That may look like texting or calling a friend, having a virtual wine-drinking-late-night zoom meeting, or sending videos to friends of your family at play. It’s important for human health that we find ways to stay in relationship, especially during times of stress.  

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