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Talking to Your Kids About COVID-19

| By Bethany Bailey, CSW

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a ton of overwhelming changes in the lives of adults, often literally overnight. While I empathize with others trying to muddle through this process, I often find myself much more concerned about the kiddos and how they're coping.

If us grown-ups are having trouble making sense of this incredible shift, what must our little guys be thinking?

While I don’t have kids of my own, I have three nieces and nephews, ages 2, 4, and 8. I’ve found it helpful to think of COVID-19 in terms of their levels of development. Just like anything else that is as widespread in the media and comes up in daily conversations, there’s a pretty good chance that the kids in your life have heard something about the pandemic already.

We haven’t yet had time to research how these life changes will affect them, but it’s a safe bet that addressing their questions directly will be more helpful in the long-term than leaving them in the dark.

For kids, knowledge about Coronavirus is power

If you can remember anything from your childhood, I’m sure that at some point you had a misunderstanding of the world around you. As adults, or human beings in general, the unknown is often the foundation our fears are based upon. It’s one of the reasons that ghost stories and horror movies are part of so many cultures; when you don’t know what you’re dealing with, it’s difficult to be prepared. It’s also the same reason horror movie franchises are so varied; if they all stuck to the same rules, they would become predictable. In today’s terms — an unprecedented pandemic — we are lacking a lot of very necessary information. The unknown abounds, and it’s bewildering.

Although it’s clear that the future isn’t certain, our society is gaining more knowledge about COVID-19 all the time. So just as we have to rearrange our lives around new intel, children have to do the same under parental guidance.

Kids have a much less complex understanding of the world around them; it’s something that comes with age and experience. Just like decisions regarding when to introduce sex education and how much information to share, it’s important to consider your child’s age and level of understanding when deciding what to tell them about current events.

Recently, I asked my sister how her children were processing the whole situation. She said her 2-year-old didn’t exhibit much awareness, and the four-year-old only had a vague idea that something out of the ordinary was going on. Of course, I was most curious about the 8-year-old; she’s at an age where she doesn’t miss anything.

The good news is that she seems to be handling the situation relatively well. She frames her understanding of the situation through her connection to friends and family. At her age, it's normal for her to miss people she would normally see regularly. Even her younger siblings have noticed that we see each other less frequently. They have asked why we haven’t visited them since March. It’s been hard, but we’ve had to gently explain (several times!) that we will come as soon as it is safe to do so.

Aside from missing school and loved ones, my niece has also confided that she can only stand to wear a mask for 30 minutes or it’s hard to breathe. I imagine many children share this sentiment (heck, even some adults do).

All that being said, here are what I feel to be the two most important things to consider when talking to your children about COVID-19.

1. Consider your child's level of development and how much information they handle.

Much like sex education, you can base this on your child’s age and the stage of development they are in. For instance, with younger kids, it’s best not to go in-depth about the heavier issues. Adults are anxious enough about this as it is, so touching briefly on those topics would be best (if you feel the need to mention them at all.)

Young children usually understand the concept of getting sick and that illness often can be contagious. The main thing they need to know is that people are getting sick, and the disease is easy to catch. That is why we have to avoid contact with other people and why we are taking extra measures (such as wearing masks and sanitizing our hands more often).

From there, you can use your best judgment. If they have questions, answer them. Though it may be best to not offer up extensive information about the death rate or the economic recession. Too much information can be overwhelming and cause an inordinate amount of stress and fear for a child. As adults, we are the ones responsible for mitigating these factors. Kids don’t have the capability of solving these problems, so consider if the burden of the truth is one they are prepared for.

2. Focus on how you, as a family, and they, as an individual, can be prepared to face Coronavirus.

Everyone feels better when they have a plan in place in the face of a stressful situation. Children are prone to panic and shut down when something goes awry (you've seen the temper tantrums when they expect to get dessert, but have to eat their veggies first!), so helping them understand the plan and manage their expectations is doubly important.

This is why we have fire and tornado drills. Practicing the necessary responses for emergency situations eventually makes them second nature. It’s hard to think when your adrenaline is pumping. Knowing what to do ahead of time allows you to encode the process with a clear head.

Having a plan is what makes Step 1 less scary. It’s important to stress that yes, there are difficult things going on right now, but we have a plan and we are doing things that will help us (and others!) stay safe.

Explain that extra cleaning, wearing masks, and avoiding people all help slow the spread of germs. This can help justify why we've had to make these changes so suddenly. It also helps give children the sense that the situation is under control and they are secure, even when we as adults may not feel that.

The truth is, we don't know how long COVID-19 will be a threat or how long it will be until things go back to normal. For now, we have to do the best we can with what we’ve got… and right now that’s practicing social distancing and meticulous hygiene.

Bethany Bailey is a Clinical Social Worker in our Richmond location. Bethany studied at the University of Kentucky. She grew up in Appalachia and the hardships she saw there are what inspired her to pursue a career in helping people. She loves animals, and her favorite place to be is on the couch with her cats. She specializes in working with children behaviorally

and has a passion for helping young adults work towards their goals.

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