How to talk to kids about COVID-19? It’s been two years since the pandemic hit the world like a proverbial ton of bricks. Businesses shut, borders closed, governments tried to reassure a worried public, and public health experts scrambled to explain this new deadly disease.Suddenly, children were pulled from classrooms across the globe, and many parents struggled to help them adapt to online learning. Social distancing was the new buzz phrase on everyone’s lips, and overnight masks were mandatory for anyone heading into public spaces. Dog walking was permitted, but any excursion that wasn’t essential was discouraged or, in some places, temporarily outlawed.It’s been a challenging time – virtually every family; it’s safe to say, directly knows someone who fell ill with COVID-19 or knows of someone in their community who did. It’s genuinely been a once-in-a-century disaster.But things are getting better, thankfully. Vaccines and treatments are now widely available. Children are eligible for inoculation if they’re over five years old. But mental health experts agree that children aren’t out of the woods psychologically. While their physical well-being is protected by vaccination, their hearts and souls are still grappling with the changes wrought by the pandemic – changes to social norms, changes to friendships, and changes to their family, potentially, if someone they love fell ill with the virus.Plenty of children still have questions. Many don’t understand the seriousness of the virus simply because they are too young. Others wonder whether they’ll ever feel “normal” again, at a school dance or a sports practice.This article offers suggestions for talking to kids about the ongoing pandemic. After all, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not declared it over or changed it to endemic status. We are all tired of COVID-19, but the virus isn’t finished with us quite yet. Here are some suggestions on talking to your children about the ongoing pandemic.
- Monitor Your Own Anxiety Levels
Children are sponges, and if they see their parents reacting nervously to the news, for example, it heightens their own anxiety. They may not be able to articulate this – it’s a kind of free-floating anxiety that sets in. But if mom and dad are constantly talking about the dangers of the virus, you can bet your child will take that in and start worrying too.Be aware of your child’s reactions to your own mood and concerns, and cut down screen time if necessary so you – and your children – can get the pandemic out of your heads for a while.
- Ask Them If There Is Anything They Want To Know
No doubt they’ve learned plenty at school, from friends and family members about the pandemic. Find out whether the information they’ve heard is correct, and if not, set the record straight. Make sure your explanations are age-appropriate and that you don’t frighten them, of course. But they need to know how serious COVID-19 can be despite vaccines and treatments.
- Remember That Young Children Worry A lot About Everything
Concerns about the virus have landed on top of all the usual anxieties children face – about how they are doing in school, for example, and about their social lives.Parents must recognize that an “invisible illness” can be terrifying, so don’t minimize or dismiss their fears, hoping that will change their feelings. For example – ask if they are afraid of you contracting the virus or one of their grandparents.This gives them the chance to tell you everything they are afraid of and gives you the chance to allay those fears without making them feel their fears are irrational. It also gives you the opportunity to explain why certain public health measures, like good hand hygiene, are still so important.
- Be Patient As They Adapt To New or Changing Measures
If you have a teenager at home, they may well express frustration that life is not yet completely back to normal. Governments are slowly easing restrictions, but if an outbreak occurs at their school, they may suddenly have to switch to remote learning again.These snap changes, made for everyone’s benefit, can be tough for children of any age to cope with. Teenagers, however, are inundated with hormones and mood swings at the best of times, and two years of global pandemic restrictions have made all those hormonal peaks and valleys that much worse. So if they get a little annoyed with all the back-and-forth public health measures, try to be patient.Their social life has been inexorably altered, and many of the activities they once counted on may have stalled or dried up completely. Be as patient as possible with them, and make an effort to compromise.For example, you may not want them to have all their friends to the house just yet, but if some friends are fully vaccinated and you live in a low-risk area, give your teen some leeway. Let them have a few friends over on a Saturday night to watch a movie or listen to music.These kinds of occasional events go a long way toward restoring a teen’s sense of normalcy. That goes for allowing them out, as well. If they want to go to a sports event or a concert, agree if they promise to keep their mask on.They may complain and groan (“mom, you are so strict!”), but their desire to get out and see friends and attend a much-missed event will override their resistance to your so-called strictness.
- Explain That The Pandemic Isn’t Over Even Though Rules Are Changing
Children may assume that, since they’re back in school and even mask mandates are ending in some places, they no longer need to worry about the virus. Correct that impression immediately.Explain that keeping up practices like good hand hygiene, social distancing (where possible and necessary) as well as isolating if they get sick – even with just a cold – are all still hugely important.At the time of this writing, children under five are not eligible for vaccination. Therefore it’s crucial that families do all they can to keep these little ones from exposure to COVID-19. Not just for their own sake, but so they don’t become asymptomatic carriers and infect vulnerable individuals, like their grandparents or friends whose immune systems are compromised.
- What If The Unthinkable Happens?
How do you explain to a child that a grandparent contracted the virus and passed away?Child psychologists are now divided on this – telling them the virus is responsible for a loved one’s death has to be handled very carefully.Some experts say telling a child that the person died but not blaming covid is a reasonable approach. Others say that because it is likely to be with us permanently, the more open we are with children about its impact, the better.In the end, it depends on how old your child is; how likely it is they may hear the truth from another source (like a sibling) and whether you, as their parent, feel they can process the news.
The pandemic has been enormously challenging for everyone on many fronts, but perhaps no one has experienced its devastating effects more than children. Adults can read credible sources like newspapers, medical journals and online scientific websites, like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States. Adults can keep pace with changing guidelines and understand why the situation is continually evolving. Children thrive on stability, and the last two years have been anything but. Nonetheless, with parents guiding them and reassuring them that they (and the family) will get through this, children adapt.Knowing that we are all in this together, and that together is how we will come out of it, makes children feel less alone and isolated. Spend extra time with them, talking when needed, and focusing on other topics. Undertake activities as a family, like hiking in the fresh air and video chatting with family members in other cities and countries.Most importantly, reassure them that you are not likely to contract COVID-19 but that if you do, you’ll recover completely. Downplay the worst effects of the virus because children do not need to hear about those, particularly very young children. Parents who talk openly about the pandemic when their child has questions are helping them cope with our current reality. COVID-19 is likely here to stay, but it need not rule our lives. Soon the virus will be endemic, and hopefully, by this time in 2023, everyone will simply need yearly boosters to bump up our immunity, as we get annual shots to protect against the seasonal flu.Please focus on the positives when talking to your children while stressing that protecting ourselves is as important as ever. Remind them when they’re washing their hands that they’re doing it to protect others, as well as themselves.Tell them they are champions because they are helping combat a serious disease and that controlling COVID-19 is one way to show their family how much they love them. Make the conversations between you constructive, and children will welcome the chance to contribute to fighting because it makes them feel in control and hopeful about the future.Making them feel good about their contribution helps them feel good about themselves as things improve and the pandemic finally begins to fade.