“Keeping children calm and happy during a global pandemic is not easy,” says children’s emotional wellbeing specialist Alicia Eaton. But, there are ways that you can manage your children’s fears and questions, as we discover.
Published: 22 April 2020.
When it comes to talking to your children about coronavirus, it may feel difficult knowing where to start, how to frame the issue and how to make sure you keep their fears in check. Don’t let that put you off, though – it’s crucial that the conversation happens.
According to a recent YouGov/Cognitia poll, around 80 per cent of British children feel worried about C-19, rising to 93% of the over-12s. However, one of the most important ways to ease that anxiety is to talk about it.
So, how can parents do this effectively? Here, we ask the experts for the best approach – whatever age your children are.
1) Pose gentle starter questions
Experts universally agree that the most important step we can take is to talk about coronavirus with children rather than avoiding the issue completely. “All children need a clear, age-appropriate discussion about coronavirus,” says psychologist and children’s mental health specialist Professor Tanya Byron, who underlines of the importance of a calm approach.
To do this, start by asking children and teens to share any worries or questions. “Even young children will pick up pieces of information on the radio, in the car, or through news segments,” says Dr Zoi Nikiforidou of Liverpool Hope University. “They might not mention anything to you. But internally they may be trying to process this new information, which could also be making them fearful.”
For pre-schoolers, explain that there is a bug that’s making people poorly, but most people get better soon. “Tell them it’s tiny, and likes to travel on people and things, so to stop it from making people poorly we need to help stop it travelling which means we can’t go to school for a while, or see family/friends,” advises clinical psychologist Laura Keyes. “Give lots of reassurance and keep routines as normal as possible.”
Primary school kids
If your child is at primary school, start by asking them how they are and if they’re worried about the virus, says Relate counsellor Peter Saddington. “You can start by explaining the facts and dispelling myths to reassure them. One of the facts that’s out now is that children generally recover very quickly from it. You might say: ‘It’s not a nice illness, but it’s very unlikely you’ll catch it, and there are things we can do to protect you.”
Teenagers will have already talked to friends and teachers, so rather than an explanation, address specific worries about health, schooling, routine and safety, says Laura Keyes. “Acknowledge worries and help answer questions they have factually. Explain what they need to do: wash their hands, keep things clean, and make schedules for their day.
2) Contextualise it
Children have an extraordinary amount of partial information, says Dr Madeline Levine, child psychologist. It’s the job of parents to fill in the gaps and help to frame the issue.
Try saying something like: ‘We’ve had other problems like this before and everybody is working really hard to make things safe for people.’
When it comes to helpful resources, younger children will benefit from picture-book explanations. Coronavirus: A Book For Children, illustrated by The Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffer, answers key questions and is aimed at 5-9 year olds.
For older kids or teenagers, adds Levine, this is a great time to open up discussions about media, the news, and where they can find reliable sources of information.
3) Cut down on news
Everyone (adults included) will feel a lot calmer if continuous television and radio news bulletins are switched off, says children’s emotional wellbeing specialist Alicia Eaton. Limit them to once a day at a fixed time – and keep younger children away from news altogether.
“Children just don’t need that level of information,” says Sam Cartwright-Hatton, Professor of Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Sussex. “They can’t put it into context, and they definitely don’t need some of the scare stories that are out there. Turn off the TV and radio when the news comes on, and don’t leave newspapers lying around.
“For older primary school-aged children,” she adds, “CBBC Newsround is good for taking a calm, child-centred approach. But watch it with them, and be ready to discuss anything that it brings up.”
For teens, The Day is an online news service with an optional daily newsletter to keep older kids informed.
4) Be reassuring
Give plenty of reassurance and make it very clear that children are extremely unlikely to get very ill, says Professor Cartwright-Hatton.
“However, be wary of giving absolute guarantees. For instance, it is very tempting to say “Oh Granny and Grandpa will be fine, I promise!” The chances are that they will be fine, but if they are not, then it might be difficult for your child to trust your assurances in future.”
Psychologist Dr. Richard Bromfield, who specialises in working with children and families, says that even teens will benefit from calm parental reassurance. “I think we forget that a 17-year-old still has a little bit of that younger child in them, and they too are frightened and vulnerable.”
Teens may be finding the loss of significant experiences particularly painful – sports seasons, theatre productions, exams, end-of-school celebrations, for example. “Give them room to share their feelings and listen without judgement,” says clinical psychologist Dr David Anderson. “Acknowledge the real stress they may be under, but express confidence in your child’s ability to rebound.”
5) Make it okay to feel worried
Children (as with adults) need to know that it’s okay to feel worried, says Cartwright-Hatton. “We all feel worried at times – it’s a normal human emotion. But if it really does get too much and you feel as if they are constantly worrying and looking for reassurance, you could try ‘worry time’.”
Designate 20-30 minutes ‘worry time’ to sit down with your child and let them worry to their heart’s content. “Your job is mostly to listen and be sympathetic,” continues Cartwright-Hatton. “Then, outside of that time, if your child starts to worry, gently ask them to save the worry to ‘worry time’. This can be a good way of getting children to feel a bit of control over their worries.”
If you have older children, providing a listening ear and empathising with any concerns and stresses will go a long way to easing anxieties.
Finally, says Alicia Eaton, it’s not all bad news for our offspring’s mental health. “There’s no doubt that the coronavirus will leave a lasting impact on our children’s lives, but it does not have to be damaging. Our children are also witnessing great acts of kindness that may inspire many of them to become the doctors, scientists and leaders of tomorrow.”