Telling your child about coronavirus can make any parent feel uncertain, even nurses with their mad people skills and extensive knowledge of health science. That same medical job description adds more complicated layers to your parent-child conversation, too. Should your child learn that as a frontline worker you're at a higher risk of getting COVID-19? If you work in critical care, should kids know that your case load might involve more death and sadness? Or that if you get sick, you'll have to live apart from them for two weeks? Most nurse parents are already considering these conversations, or maybe have already had a couple.
One thing's for sure: You can trust that the topic will come up, despite your crossed fingers. "Rather than leave this education up to siblings, the media, or friends, you play an important role in helping children and teens better understand what's happening and help them manage their own related worries or anxiety," daughter-father team Erin and David Walsh, co-founders of the Spark and Stitch Institute, explained in Psychology Today.
When you're faced with talking to a toddler or middle schooler about COVID-19, your first order of business is to formulate an age-appropriate message, according to licensed professional counselor Helene D’Jay, clinical director for Newport Academy mental health facility, a nationwide group of evidence-based healing centers for adolescents and families.
"Depending on the age of the child, you should adjust the amount of detail and wording," she said. "But in general, kids need accurate, age-appropriate information. Be open and honest."
Resist the urge to over explain or add emotional reactions, focusing on pure science and safety measures to begin with, D'Jay advised. "Kids need simple, straightforward, non-reactive information. You might want to explain the virus as a tiny germ that can get inside your body through your mouth and nose and cause you to feel sick. Explain that these germs can be put on doorknobs and other surfaces by hands through touching, and washing a lot can keep everyone healthier."
She also recommended the strategy of getting your core message together ahead of time, but waiting until your child signals readiness before having the talk. "A really good way to have a conversation like this with your kids is to let them lead and express their concerns, and speak directly to those concerns," she added. "This way, you avoid giving information that they are not asking for, which could create more anxiety."
When the topic does come up, you can re-emphasize any ongoing information you've already shared about healthy bodies. But perhaps you haven't been the type of nurse parent who extends their health education work to the home. If so, now's a good time to start, though slowly. "Kids need to feel some sense of power over their situation, so it may be helpful to explain to younger kids that their bodies are amazing germ fighters and that if they get the virus, they may not feel as sick as others,” D’Jay added. “As they have super germ-fighting abilities, they need to use their powers to protect others, by washing their hands and cleaning their surroundings, so others who don’t have such great superpowers can also stay healthy."
Also make sure you and your co-parent or other influential adults in the home are "presenting as a unified and confident team," D'Jay emphasized. "That will help your child feel less anxious for themselves and for you, their primary caregiver.”
And if your child knows as a nurse, you’ll be on the COVID-19 front lines? “Healthcare workers who are directly working with sick people can explain that everyone needs someone to make sure they feel better, just like we, as moms and dads, help them feel better when they are sick, and that’s what mom or dad is doing for others,” D’Jay added. “Let them know that you have special items that help you stay safe and healthy, like masks and gloves, that make your work safer."
Once you've got the basic strategies down, incorporate these tips shared by Erin and David Walsh in Psychology Today:
Babies and toddlers: Try to stay calm. "Even though babies and toddlers may not know what is going on, they may pick up a parent’s worry and anxiety with their 'sixth sense,'” the father-daughter team emphasized. "Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Routines are reassuring for babies.
Shield babies and toddlers from media coverage as much as possible...Provide extra reassurance and time together." For very young kids who are verbal, let them take the lead. "Don’t talk about it unless they show signs of distress or ask questions," the duo added.
Preschoolers: This ever-questioning age group may latch onto the coronavirus topic and pepper you with questions "about germs, doctors, and even death," they said. "Reassure them that adults are in charge and working to keep people safe, healthy, and secure...Preschoolers are also concerned about the health of parents, relatives, and friends. Reassure them that everyone is doing what they can to stay healthy and take care of others. Remind them that they can stay healthy by washing hands and make hand-washing fun with songs."
Since this age group can't readily tell the difference between real life and fantasy, limit their exposure to news shows and podcasts. In lieu of a "talk," the best approach for preschoolers is sticking to routine when you can and keeping up a soothing bedtime ritual with books and tucking in. "Don’t insist on talking about it a lot unless they show signs of distress or ask questions," they said.
Elementary-school age kids:. This is the developmental stage where parent-child information-sharing about coronavirus is both natural and desirable. "Explain what happened while reassuring them that you... will do everything to keep them healthy and safe," they said. "Children this age are also concerned about their own health, as well as that of family and friends. For example, they may have heard that kids aren’t impacted by coronavirus but that older people are, triggering fears about grandparents. They may be worried about money if they know adults are off of work. Try to spend extra time together. This will provide extra reassurance."
If maintaining normal routines and discussing all the precautions in place doesn't assuage their fears, come up with a plan for steps the child can take independently. "Children like to be helpful and feel like they can do something from hand washing to writing letters to nursing homes," the Walshs explained.
Middle schoolers: At this age, kids have probably already been inundated with media coverage and information, along with any number of coronavirus myths. "Talk to your middle school children and answer any questions. This will help you determine how much they know and may help you correct any misinformation they might have," the Walshs advised. "Children this age will be more interested in what might happen in the future. Stick to the facts and don’t burden them with your own anxiety about uncertain dystopian scenarios."
And don't miss this chance to educate middle school offspring about detecting unreliable news sources and calling out discrimination. "Talk to your kids about what they see on TV or read online and help them understand which sources are reliable and which aren’t when it comes to information about the virus," the Walshs added. "Talk about how events like this can surface harmful stereotypes and discrimination against certain people and populations. In this case, talk about the importance of disrupting anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia in coverage of and response to the coronavirus."
Finally, help your child find a way to channel worry into ways they can help, from growing food to assisting in community outreach to getting enough sleep. And try doing the same things yourself! You may find that what started as a way to be a positive role model for your child helps you with your own mental health and productivity in this challenging time.
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