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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.