How to talk to children about COVID-19 and reduce stress and anxiety

By Dr Charlotte Keating, child psychologist and Dolly’s Dream Advisory Board Member

March 18th, 2020

When it comes to talking to your kids about COVID-19 the first step, if they don’t know yet, is telling them what it is.

COVID-19 stands for coronavirus. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention describes it as a new virus.

Tell your kids, “Doctors and scientists are still learning about it. Recently the virus has made a lot of people sick. Scientists and doctors think that most people will be OK, but some people might get pretty sick. Doctors and health experts are working hard to help people stay healthy”.

Remind your kids that it is everyone’s job around the world to do what we can to slow down the spread of the disease among the community, and to protect vulnerable people.

Be calm and listen

Feeling fearful and worried about something we don’t have all the answers to is very normal. Children are emotional sponges. They soak up how their caregivers are coping; they look to them to gauge how they should respond, especially when they don’t fully understand what’s going on.

Before talking to your children about COVID-19, have a check-in on how you are managing. How much time are you spending exposed to the ever-changing information in the media about the disease? More on this below.

Respond to questions in an age-appropriate way

  1. What’s happening?
    Ask, and listen to what they know, and how they feel about it. Validate that it is okay to feel worried and you are there to listen and answer their questions as best you can. Ask them to explain what has been happening at school so you know what you need to address. It’s often that a friend may have been sent home because they’re unwell.
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  3. Why have I been sent home for coughing?
    Often, if children are feeling unwell and appear to be unwell, they will be sent home from school. Explain that going home when you aren’t feeling well is a normal. It is a cautious approach to take, so that children don’t pass their illness onto each other. It’s worth saying that this is also part of school doing their bit to reduce the spread of illnesses, to protect the more vulnerable people in society.
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  5. What if my school closes?
    If your child’s school has closed, or they’re worried it will, explain that because children have a lot of contact points with other people shutting down temporarily can reduce the chance that illness may be passed between students and their families (including caregivers / parents, siblings and grandparents).Explain that it’s important for us to try to prevent people who are vulnerable from getting sick, and to slow down how quickly people get unwell, to keep the numbers of people who need medical assistance in the health system, manageable.
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  7. It’s temporary.
    Remind your kids that this will all be temporary. There will be online options for education to continue. You may not know when school will re-open or a pupil will return but let them know you will do your best to keep them updated.

Empower your kids to control what they can do to help themselves and the community

In times of uncertainty, it is really important to empower children (and indeed ourselves) to have a sense of control over what we can do to help ourselves, and the community.

The World Health Organization (SHO), Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have clear instructions on how to maintain our hygiene so that we do our very best to reduce the spread of illness or, in epidemiological terms, flatten the curve:

Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds – or sing Happy Birthday. Teach your children how to wash their hands properly using information available via WHO or CDC.

Teach them to cough / sneeze into their elbow (even if they don’t have a cough) or into a tissue that they discard in the bin.

Social distancing. Teach them what it is and why it is important. It includes: keeping a safe distance from people (especially when they appear to be sick) and not hugging or kissing others e.g. in particular grandparents, and not going to public gatherings for a while if that’s what is recommended.

Social distancing is important because we are trying to reduce the likelihood of the illness passing between people, again to reduce the spread of illness which could harm vulnerable parts of the community and overburden the health system. Because social distancing is the opposite of what we need when feeling stressed, work out other ways kids can connect with people and feel a sense of being soothed – e.g., more eye contact (to be more reassuring), being on their physical eye level more, spending more time together and making more time to just check in on how they’re going. There are lots of strategies below that may help with this too.

The bigger picture is that by keeping people as well as possible, the health system won’t become overburdened, and that vulnerable people who need care, the elderly and those with respiratory or chronic illness will have access when and if they need it.

Focus on wellbeing

It’s essential to do our part in engaging in behaviours that reduce the spread of illness.

It’s also critical for us to manage our stress levels and anxiety so that we don’t burn out.

This relates to managing what you and your family are doing, watching, talking about and thinking about.

When we feel anxious or stressed, the brain’s fear system gets activated. This can set in train a cascade of physiological events called a fight or flight response. When we are in a fight or flight response mode, the more rational parts of our brain that are involved in decision-making and problem solving go offline, and we are more concerned with our survival.

Even when, for most of us, our survival is not immediately threatened, we can still be in this fear mode – this gets amplified by what we are watching on television and what we might be talking about. The more we talk about it, the more stressful it can all become, without actually making a difference to how we individually manage.

So, here are some tips on how to manage:

  1. Make time for positive discussions.
    Mealtimes can become very focused on the new developments related to COVID-19. Make time for these discussions, but balance it with what has been going well, and what you feel grateful for. Each person might contribute something positive that happened in their day, or what they really appreciate.There is so much that is good, we just have to let our brains pay attention to that too. It can also help to think about how other members of community are feeling and coping; especially the elderly and the vulnerable with health conditions and checking in on a neighbour.
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  1. Make time to explore disappointment.
    Because of the postponement or cancellation of public gatherings, there are many opportunities that young people will miss out on. Whether it’s a sporting competition they’ve been working towards, debating competitions, school concerts – these are things that young people may have worked long and hard for, and may therefore feel a real sense of injustice, and disappointment about them.Creating a safe space to validate that and developing ways to see forward are important. For students who are studying in their final years of school, it is possible they may be required to engage in online learning temporarily. In an already challenging year, helping them navigate these changes in a way that minimises stress will be important.
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  3. Be discerning about what media outlets online and on the TV and radio you engage in.
    If you are listening to this information all day, then your brain is going to feel saturated with it. Engage in mindfulness, singing, walking outside, movies for escapism and anything else that allows your brain to take a break, and get some perspective on being in the present moment.
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  5. Be kind, thoughtful and friendly to each other.
    While our brains are in fear-mode, we are typically hypervigilant to threats in our environment. Those threats can come in the form of feeling distrusting when someone sneezes or coughs. It might also come in the form of associating certain nationalities with our perception of illness.There is no place for blame, stigma or racism, and this is especially important to talk about with your children to avoid the potential for bullying. We all need to do our bit to fight the global problem. Focus on how you can check in on, and help your neighbour or friend, even a stranger.Give an extra smile or a wave to someone in the street. Yesterday, I was driving and stopped in a back street to let an elderly woman cross the road with her shopping and, when she had crossed, she looked back and we exchanged a warm smile and waved at each other. I felt so grateful to have such a human exchange.
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  7. Focus on the people who are helping
    There are so many people, GPs, hospital staff and other medical people who are doing everything they can to help.

Create certainty and safety, and make time to still have fun

For most of us, regular routines and rituals can help us to feel grounded, certain and safe. This is why, when there is so much change currently, we can feel stressed – we are in a constant state of needing to adapt.

Do what you can to maintain family rituals or make new ones that everyone agrees on if you can’t keep to the old ones right now.

Activities that are distracting, fun, and affirming, such as reading, singing, dancing around the house, card games, technology (rules may need to be slightly relaxed on the amount of time spent online temporarily), building cubby houses inside or outside, moving and exercising can help flush out the consequences of being stressed from your body.

Although we can’t predict the timeline for when this will be over, what we can give young people is a sense of empowerment about how they can take care of themselves, and help.

We must do our part to slow transmission and protect those most vulnerable who might be at risk. Check in on your community. The fear brain makes us panic – and this makes sense – but try to think of those who might be at risk.

My perspective for helping is as a psychologist, not a medical health expert. Please refer to The Chief Health Officer of your State or Territory, the Department of Health and Human Services including the hotline, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and World Health Organisation for up-to-date medical and management related information on COVID-19.