It can be very hard to know what to say to children about Covid-19. Often this is because we ourselves may be confused or anxious about the spread of the virus and the likely risk that our family may face. So, before you even think about talking to your children about their fears, or their understanding of the Coronavirus, educate yourself fully, taking the best current advice from the HSE, to be found by clicking here
It’s impossible to fully measure the impact of news, reporting and social media chatter about Covid-19 on children. But we know, as adults, that the 24-hour news cycle, and the unreliability of some information that circulates on the Internet can distort and sensationalise the reality of the pandemic, making it difficult to put into perspective for our children, let alone our teenagers or even at times ourselves.
For children, whose understanding of the world is mostly limited to their own experiences, the constant, relentless focus on something like Coronavirus makes it seem larger than life and may lead them to overestimate the real danger, or underestimate their own capacity to make a difference with their own hand hygiene and sensible social interaction.
If we can assume, for many children, that the volume and prevalence of reporting about Covid-19 is heightening their anxiety for their own personal safety, or the safety of loved ones like grandparents or family members who may already be sick, then focusing on their worries is as good a place to start our conversations with them.
Many parents worry that by discussing fears we may heighten them for our children. In reality, having a forum to voice worries, with an adult who understands and is supportive, is really helpful for children.
If you really want to come to terms with helping children with their anxieties, then I have a comprehensive online course, called Scared Kids, that may help you to understand their anxiety and help them to cope with it. You can find the course by clicking here
With young children, try not to minimise or discount any concerns and fears that they can express. Do talk with them about what they understand but focus mostly on reassuring them about their safety. Since small children gain their security from you, sometimes you have to reassure them about your safety, and you have to present a confident air (even if you have your own worries)!
With older children, similarly, explore what they know, make sure they have correct information and then empathise with any worries they may have.
In practice empathy always sounds like these kinds of phrases:
“You sound like you’re worried about….”
“I wonder if you feel a bit scared about…”
“I guess you probably worry about…”
“You seem really frightened about…”
This is a critical first step, as they need to know that you fully understand the extent and nature of their fears if they are to subsequently believe any reassurance you may offer. Be careful not to make any guarantees about their safety, but once you have heard their fears, you can reassure them about the actual probability of them being directly affected, in a dangerous way, being very small.
The other thing that can really help children to manage their anxieties is giving them a sense of control over their destiny. So, you can focus on the personal actions they can take to minimise the risk to themselves and their friends or family. That involves teaching them how to wash their hands properly (click here for a video of how to do it), help them avoid touching their face, remind them about not shaking hands, encourage them to avoid big groups and teach them how to cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow.