It‘s a tricky time for teachers and parents, especially if you’re looking after young children. How should you explain what’s going on, and how should you answer the many questions kids are likely to have about COVID-19? It’s hard enough to put our own minds at ease when we don’t know how the situation will unfold from week to week, but there are a few things we can do to help kids understand why their everyday routine is changing so quickly.
First, here are some common questions that might come up.
What is the new coronavirus?
Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, recommends reducing children’s uneasiness by relating the virus to something they’ve experienced before. For instance, you might say, “The new coronavirus is a kind of germ that can make people feel sick. Remember how the flu made (you/your classmate/anyone your child knows) feel? It can be a lot like getting the flu. Some people feel just a little bit sick. Some people get a fever and a cough. Sometimes, the cough can make it hard to breathe easily.”
How do you catch the virus?
Sperling recommends striking a balance between honesty and oversharing. Tell kids what they need to know, but don’t overwhelm them with scary details:
“The virus spreads like a flu or cold. If a person who has the coronavirus sneezes or coughs, germs that are inside the body come outside of the body. That’s because sneezes and coughs can send germs into the air. When the germs go into the air, they can travel for up to six feet–probably further than you are tall. That’s why it’s important to stand six feet apart from people other than your family. You don’t want to breathe in air with germs. A healthy person also might get germs on their hands. This might happen by touching someone who is sick, or touching surfaces where germs landed because someone sick sneezed or coughed or touched those surfaces. To keep germs on hands from getting inside the body, wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer afterward. Try not to touch your mouth, eyes, or inside your nose because those are places where the germs can get inside the body.”
Why are some people wearing masks? Should I wear a mask?
“Masks are for people who are sick to wear so that they don’t share germs. The masks also are for medical staff, like doctors and nurses, to wear so they can help people who have the virus. You do not need to wear a mask.”
Can you die from the new coronavirus?
“Most people who have caught the virus have not died, just like with the flu. Doctors are working really hard to keep an eye on anyone who is feeling sick. They want to make sure everyone gets the help they need and to keep the virus from spreading.”
Another great tip Sperling has is to look out for something called “reassurance seeking.” Although children are naturally curious, too many questions–especially if they’re similar and your answers don’t seem to satisfy them–could be a sign of anxiety.
“Sometimes… a child’s anxiety seems to be asking the questions, prompting a behavior called reassurance seeking,” she says. “It may look like a child repeatedly asking the same or similar questions, yet the child’s distress increases no matter how many times you answer the questions. If you notice repeated reassurance seeking (repeated asking of the questions above, for example), then it might be helpful to seek support to help your children manage anxiety.
How do you support kids during the pandemic?
First, it’s important to model relaxed behavior yourself. If you are taking it seriously but regulating your own emotions and trying to keep calm, your kids will pick up on that energy and feel more relaxed themselves. This means you’ll need to dig into wellness techniques that work for you, like yoga, mindfulness meditation, running, and journaling. Another key, says relationship expert Esther Perel, is to remember that any tension that comes from sharing a space 24/7 with your family is exacerbated by anxieties related to the virus, and may not reflect how you actually feel. So take care to give everyone the space they need, ask for the space you need, and keep communication channels and hearts open.
In addition, pay attention to how much time children are spending online. They could be taking in false information about the pandemic or simply taking in too much information. You can model a healthy relationship with social media and news by limiting your own exposure to it, or carving out time for the family to read updates together. As we’ve all seen so far, social media is becoming even more addictive, especially as a result of social distancing. So it’s important to manage how much time we’re spending scrolling through our feed. Encouraging kids to spend more time in nature can help them feel more connected while they’re stuck at home away from their friends and classmates. In fact, research has shown that spending time in nature can make people feel more connected to each other.
How do you keep kids safe from coronavirus?
Talking to kids about practicing good hygiene is essential. Encourage them to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds (while singing the ABC’s or Happy Birthday song twice), cover their nose and mouth when they sneeze, avoid touching surfaces when you’re outside the home (e.g. at the grocery store), stay six feet away from others except family members, make sure they are eating healthy foods and sleeping well, keep spirits high by laughing and sharing moments of caring and closeness inside the home, keep their rooms orderly and clean so that they’re in the habit of cleanliness when they head back to school, and discourage them from sharing drinks and food with other kids.
In times of uncertainty, we can help calm ourselves and our children by managing the information we take in and share, the emotions we feel and communicate to others, and the nourishment and exercise we give to our bodies. It’s not an easy time for anyone, but it can be a time of deep learning, reflection, and closeness. Let’s use the moment to teach our kids a few things they can carry with them into a brighter, healthier future.