The pandemic spread of corona virus COVID-19 creates confusion and fear among all people. Children face more difficulties to make sense of the situation and distinguish true information from false. The role of the parents is to assist children in comprehending the situation.
Innove Rajaleidja psychologists Birgit Tito and Evelin Tael together with chief specialist in psychology Katri Viitpoom give practical advice how to talk to children about the corona virus.
- It does not make sense to hide the events taking place in the world. Children will get to know it anyway – from TV, radio, other adults or children or observing the conversation or anxiety of the parents. It is much better to satisfy the child’s curiosity, increase their knowledge and decrease anxiety at home.
- Children react to disturbing events differently – some make jokes and are happy from the free days granted, but some may worry about falling ill or even dying. Some children may become fractious, some retract, and some become hyperenergetic. All children need support and explanations from parents during the current situation.
- The information about the corona virus provided to children must be correct, specific and take into consideration the child’s age. While talking, remain calm and supportive. For example, we may explain: “There are numerous viruses in the world and sometimes we fall ill, when we are in contact with some virus. Usually the viruses cause coughing, stuffy nose, temperature and feeling unwell. Our body knows how to combat the viruses and usually we get well pretty soon. The current corona virus deserves so much attention as it spreads rapidly over the world and is a new one. No treatment or vaccine for the virus has been discovered”. Avoid speculations, conspiracy theories and going too much into details, as they confuse and frighten the child.
- When the child is agitated, listen what he has to say. Let him talk what he has heard in the kindergarten, school or from friends that worries or frightens him.
- As the next step, we can improve child’s knowledge. The child might have heard that many grandmothers and –fathers will die or if the school will be closed, they will lag behind with learning. We may calm the child down with the known facts: “No one has died in Estonia because of corona and we do not have to be afraid right now that something bad will happen to any of our family members. We all can help it, when we wash hands regularly, keep cleanliness, stay at home together and rest. When the school is closed, we can study at home and the teachers will teach us online.”
- The rule of thumb is that when a child knows what to ask, he is also ready for the answer. Please answer all the questions in an age-appropriate way, do not ignore or lie.
- A child may ask what the corona virus is. You could explain with simple words that it is a germ that could make a person unwell when it gets into a human body. You may recall together when some virus in the past caused the child to be unwell or how a friend had been ill and explain that the corona virus could cause something similar. You may add that some people will cough and have a high temperature/fever; some feel simply unwell and are tired while some may have a severe cough that causes problems with breathing. It is important to understand how much information is sufficient for the child and when additional information becomes too detailed or complicated.
- If the child wants to know how corona virus spreads, you may explain that when someone sneezes or coughs, the microbes are thrown out of the body. A person feeling well may catch the disease when the microbes get into his organism. These microbes may also get on our hands, so it is important to wash hands to keep the microbes getting into our body when eating with hands or touching our face.
- When the child asks if the corona virus kills, you may explain that just like any other viruses, corona virus has caused the death of some people, but many more have healed. Doctors are working hard to cure the ill people.
- It helps when the conversation focuses on concrete rules that the child himself could do for the benefit of himself and the family. You could discuss, for example, when and how to wash hands. You yourself can be a positive example while following the hygiene rules. If specific new rules have been introduced in the school or kindergarten, discuss them as well at home.
- The parents might limit children’s access to news and speculations in media and Internet. Constantly changing information about the spread of the virus, number of infected people and their location is too large a burden for the child and the rapidly changing information covering a wide range of topics is hard to grasp for a child.
- We can give a positive example by staying calm, at least outwardly. The agitation of the child is often related to that of the parents. If the parents keep discussing the matter in a troubled tone, raise constantly the topic and check the news etc. also the child becomes agitated. Adults can regulate their feelings more easily than children. So, the role of parents is to monitor their emotions and behaviour and to create a safe environment where all family members can rest from worrying. It is understandable that unclear situations also frighten adults and amplify mental health problems. If the emotions of an adult are too strong to stay calm in front of the child, one should use self-help methods to quell himself before talking with the child and consult also mental health specialists, if possible.
- Spending more time with parents and achieving more attention helps children in troublesome times and coping with worrying news. Joint games, creative activities and making the child laugh help to decrease the fears of smaller children.
- If the child has to stay at home from school or kindergarten, follow the ordinary daily routine as much as possible – eating, washing, reading, going to sleep as usual. Routine helps to create feeling of safety among children.
- The adult is responsible for the safety of the child, besides calming him and also oneself down. The adult must keep himself up to date with instructions given by state authorities, school or kindergarten and ensure they are followed. If the school is isolated, the parent must ensure that that the child stays at home. If corona virus symptoms appear, one must stay at home, call the emergency service and notify also the kindergarten or school.
It is important not to create fear and anxiety, but to stress in the conversations and attitude what we all can do to avoid becoming infected or infecting others.
- Children in grades 1-3 and younger need simple and concrete information. They could be explained in order to balance the facts related to corona virus that adults at home and in schools work hard to ensure the safety of children and take care of them if they happen to fall ill. It is important to stress to the child to wash hands properly.
- Children in grades 4-6 may ask several questions about the situation when the corona virus reaches their school, training or hobby group. The child may need help from the adult to distinguish between real life and catastrophic fantasies and rumours. It is appropriate to discuss the measures introduced in school and society to prevent the virus from spreading.
- Children in grades 7-9 and older do not need simplifying the subject. Children in this age-group are ready to handle the facts about the corona virus. Having sufficiently clear overview and knowledge helps them to have more control over the situation that creates feeling of security.