Not sure how to talk to your kids about the novel coronavirus?
You’re not alone, says Christina Low Kapalu, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Mercy. “It comes up with a lot of things that we’ve encountered, like mass shootings and terrorism events. Anytime there’s a big media event that causes a lot of worry, parents ask about how they can talk to their kids in developmentally appropriate ways.”
And it’s OK not to have all the answers – Low Kapalu said you can tell your child that you don’t know, but you’re going to find out. (Read KCUR’s FAQ about the coronavirus to have some of your own questions answered.)
As schools close and spring break plans are canceled, here’s how to have some of those tough conversations about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
First and foremost, take care of yourself.
You know how in an emergency on an airplane, the flight crew always tells you to put on your own oxygen mask before putting on your child’s? Well, it’s kind of like that. You’re less able to help your child manage their emotions if you’re also stressed.
“We know it’s a scary time, but when you’re feeling anxious or panicked is not the time to talk to your kids about what’s happening with coronavirus,” said Angela Dunn, the behavioral health coordinator for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools.
“It's essential for parents to be able to filter what's going on in the media before giving it back to their kids.”
Low Kapalu said parents and caregivers shouldn’t have the news on all the time, especially if their family is practicing social distancing. Take social media breaks, too.
“Make sure you’re checking in as a parent on your own thoughts and feelings,” Low Kapalu said. “Really model the coping skills you want your child to have. Take a quick walk around the block. Go write in your journal. Take a bath.”
Ask your children what they’ve already heard about coronavirus.
“If you don't ask what they know, it doesn't give you an opportunity to correct any misinformation,” Low Kapalu said.
You know your child best. Use terms you think they’ll understand while explaining what’s going on. Be calm. Let them know there are lots of people trying to keep everyone safe.
(Low Kapalu really likes this cartoon from NPR to help kids understand what’s going on.)
Generally, elementary school students only need to know the basics, Dunn said. You can emphasize preventative measures they’re probably already taking at school, like handwashing.
Middle and high school students will have more questions, and you can give them whatever information you feel is helpful.
Don’t continuously reassure anxious kids.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but Low Kapalu says being constantly reassuring can actually have the opposite of the intended effect, especially kids who already are on edge.
“Our natural inclination as parents is to protect our kids, and when you have a child who’s anxious, they’re going to ask more questions, they’re going to want more reassurance,” Low Kapalu said.
“I like to talk about setting aside a discrete amount of time to talk about their kids’ worries, but not all day, every day. That actually sends the message that they should be scared.”
Let your child be disappointed if a big trip or fun event is canceled.
Parents want to make their kids feel better right away, so they have the tendency to explain away negative feelings. Instead, try to validate what your child is feeling. Tell them it’s OK to be frustrated or disappointed that they can’t travel or see their friends. Then, try to make that time your family would’ve been doing something fun and special as possible.
“It might be nice to just spend some one-on-one time that we often don’t have time for in our busy schedule,” Dunn said. “Crafts and games and movies and books are really simple, easy ways.”
Set a schedule and stick to it if your family is stuck at home for several weeks.
Kids thrive on consistency, and school is all about routine. Keep your house from descending into chaos by creating a schedule for your kids.
“Think about normal sleep and walk times. Think about planning certain activity into the day,” Low Kapalu said. “You might even work in some homework, which may not be what your kids want, but it helps them feel a sense of normalcy.”
Most school districts have online portals where you can log in and see what your child’s been working on. Have them tell you about what they’ve been learning. Check their progress on any digital homework they’ve been assigned, or sit down together to work on their homework packet.
Pick your battles.
Your child is tired of washing his hands. What do you do?
“Now is not the time to dig your heels in. Getting into a screaming match or getting into a conflict when we’re around each other 24/7 is not going to help the situation,” Low Kapalu said.
Don’t say, “You have to wash your hands,” 50 separate times. Instead, incentivize the behavior. Tell them as soon as they’ve washed their hands, they can do something they want to do or have a few minutes of screen time.
Speaking of screen time ...
“Now is not necessarily the time to crack down on eliminating all screen time,” Low Kapalu said. “Give yourself a break and the kids a break, recognizing this is an unusual situation.”
In fact, she says FaceTime is a great way to keep in touch with grandparents and other relatives they might not be able to see, and letting kids play online games with their friends can keep their spirits high when your whole family is cooped up.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.