Talking to children about coronavirus COVID-19.

News of the coronavirus COVID-19 is everywhere, from the front page of all the papers to the playground at school. Many parents are wondering how to bring up the epidemic in a way that will be reassuring and not make kids more worried than they may already be. Here is some advice from Dr Michael Carr-Gregg:

Most children will have already heard about the virus or seen people wearing face masks, so parents shouldn’t avoid talking about it. Not talking about something can actually make young people worry more. Look at the conversation as an opportunity to convey the facts and set the emotional tone. Your goal is to help your children feel informed and get fact-based information that is likely more reassuring than whatever they’re hearing from their friends or in the news. The main points are:

  • Keep it simple and factual and focus on positive messages.
  • Reassure your child that most people only get a mild illness and fully recover within a few weeks; that children very rarely get sick and when they do it is usually just like a cold; that pets are not affected.
  • Describe what the main symptoms are and encourage them to let you know if they feel unwell.
  • Explain all the hard work that is happening here to protect them, all the doctors and nurses who are here to help us, that Australia has very good hospitals and medicines, highlight how everyone across the world is working together to look after each other, to find vaccines and treatments. If they are concerned about grandparents or others, validate this as a sign of how caring and loving they are and focus on positive messages about the medical care and support available.
  • Use the discussion as an opportunity to explore and learn about new things together – for example, how our bodies fight off viruses and that different symptoms of sickness are a sign we are working to get well; or how viruses make us sick and the things we can do to reduce our risk.
  • Encourage self-efficacy by talking about and involving your children in planning and preparedness at home, and take this opportunity to set new routines. This could be about hand hygiene, coughing etiquette, not touching your face, an elbow or foot tap instead of handshake (there are some really funny videos online and it will be a fun activity to practice), or stocking up on supplies in case you need to spend a little longer than normal at home.
  • Stick to routine. No one likes uncertainty, so staying rooted in routines and predictability is going to be helpful right now. This is particularly important if your child’s school or daycare shuts down. Make sure you are taking care of the basics just like you would during a school holiday.  
  • Assign them jobs and roles, and ways they can look after themselves – it will build resilience and give them a sense of control and agency.
  • Give them a frame of reference that they can understand drawing on their past experience, for what the sickness might be like (a cold), or quarantine (school holidays) and how long it will go for.
  • Explain that this virus isn’t specific to one country or group of people, and strategise with them how to be a good bystander and speak up in the face of racism or prejudice.

How would a parent identify that their child is not coping? How would the child present?
Be concerned if children become a little bit more irritable,  have more temper tantrums or meltdowns, become a little more clingy, more problems with sleeping, or if they see children have a little bit harder time with concentration and attention. That could manifest itself in forgetfulness or issues with completing chores or homework.

How should a parent address the panic-buying hysteria splashed across the media?
Experts say the answer lies in a fear of the unknown, and believing that a dramatic event warrants a dramatic response – even though, in this case, the best response is something as mundane as washing your hands. Consumers compensate for a perceived loss of control by buying products designed to fill a basic need, solve a problem or accomplish a task. This is what we’re seeing as people rush to buy rice, cleaning products and paper goods in illogically large proportions.

In conclusion, the most important advice from schooltv is to keep talking. Tell young people that you will continue talking about the matter. Tell young people that you will continue to keep them updated as you learn more. Let them know that the lines of communication are going to be open. You can say, ‘Even though we don’t have the answers to everything right now, know that once we know more, mum or dad will let you know, too.’”

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