How to Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Dad and son

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Key Takeaways

  • How parents respond to and talk about COVID-19 impacts kids.
  • Kids take their cues from parents on how to interpret and respond to the pandemic.
  • Being calm, honest, and open is important when talking to kids about the coronavirus.
  • Parents should focus on providing age-appropriate, fact-based information while promoting ways to stay healthy including handwashing, social distancing, and wearing a mask.

With minute-by-minute updates about coronavirus (COVID-19), it comes as no surprise that this flood of information is causing a lot of anxiety and worry in adults, as well as our kids.

If you’re struggling with how to talk to your kids about the coronavirus, you’re not alone. To help get you started with this critical conversation, we asked experts on child psychology and disease prevention to give us some tips on how to talk to kids in a way that they will understand, while also easing their anxiety about COVID-19.

These tips for healthy conversations with your child include:

  • Ease your own anxiety first
  • Have the conversation promptly
  • Learn what your child knows already
  • Be empathetic
  • Provide fact-based information and encourage good hygiene
  • Keep it age-appropriate
  • Develop a daily routine
  • Watch your child's stress levels moving forward

Check Your Anxiety Level First

With all the media coverage new cases and on deaths from the coronavirus, it's very common for adults to have anxiety—and it's quite understandable for kids to be worried about themselves and their parents, says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a pediatric mental health expert and psychologist.

Expert Tip

Because of the heightened level of worry for kids, parents must check their own anxiety levels first. 

Kids Follow Their Parents' Examples

Parents need to be honest with themselves about their own fears, says clinical psychologist Tamra Chansky, PhD. In her private practice, she’s had many instances of kids sharing that the news of the coronavirus is all their parents are talking about. "The kids weren’t that worried until they saw their parents spiraling with fear," she says.

Tamra Chansky, PhD

Kids are going to watch their parents' expressions as much as listen to their words, and teens especially are looking to their parents as role models for how to cope.

— Tamra Chansky, PhD

That’s why she says it’s essential that parents fact-check their fears, edit for accuracy, and not let their feelings of fear be in charge.

The best actions are simple hand washing and keeping the immune system free to function by getting enough sleep and keeping stress levels down. "Panic is part of the problem, never part of the solution."

Expert Tip

Distinguish between fears and facts, and also distinguish between worrying about coronavirus and taking smart actions.

Don’t Wait Too Long to Have the Conversation 

As a parent, often, our first thought is to protect, even if that means minimizing the situation. But in cases like this, being honest and providing factual information is a parent’s best defense.

"Kids can typically sense when there’s stress in the household, so I suggest proactively bringing up the discussion," says Rishi Desai, MD, chief medical officer of Osmosis and a former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rishi Desai, MD

Teaching about COVID-19 is like teaching about anything; it has to be done in the context of their world.

— Rishi Desai, MD

Determine What Your Child Knows

Ask your child to tell you what they know about the coronavirus. Encourage them to share everything they’ve heard or read, even if they think it’s a rumor. You may want to write down what they say, especially if you have more than one child.

The information you gather from this conversation can help you determine which facts you need to share first.

Be Empathetic and Don’t Dismiss Their Fears

Your child’s fears may seem unreasonable or unrealistic to you, but that doesn’t mean your child doesn’t see them as real or valid. Before you talk about facts, listen to their concerns, and don’t dismiss their fears. By hearing them out, you will be able to determine how you should direct the conversation.

"Through conversation, you want to hear what they are worried about, that’s why it’s essential to listen and not grill your child, so you can better understand what they are feeling," says Capanna-Hodge.

"Sometimes children’s worries are valid and other times they can be based on false information, so talking about it helps a parent know what their kid is really feeling," she adds.

Expert Tip

For your child, their fears are real, and they need support around them from a parent who can help to mitigate concerns about the coronavirus.

Stick to the Facts

This may seem obvious, but the information you share with your children should come from one or two sources. This can help minimize confusion, and it also teaches them how to search for accurate sources.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the World Health Organization, are two credible agencies. To get you started, here are five facts Dr. Desai says parents can share with their kids about the coronavirus (COVID-19):

  • COVID-19 causes many of the same symptoms as the flu—cough, fever, shortness of breath—but can get more serious (usually in older people).
  • It’s important for anyone with these symptoms to see a medical professional, wear a mask so as not to infect others, and/or simply stay at home.
  • COVID-19 is caused by a virus that mainly spreads when people cough and sneeze.
  • Washing hands and not touching your T zone (eyes, nose, and mouth) can reduce the chance of getting COVID-19.
  • There is no vaccine or cure, but there are treatments that can help people feel better.

Keep the Information Age-Appropriate

Younger children may need physical proximity while you talk to them. Consider holding their hand or sitting, so they are eye level with you.

How you discuss it will differ depending on the age of the child, but here’s how Desai started the discussion with his three-year-old. "We saw a person wearing a mask, and I explained that some people that are sick are wearing masks so that the germs don’t spread when they cough or sneeze."

"We talked about how to cough and sneeze like a 'Dracula' into the crook of your elbow, and that hand-washing helps wash away the germs. We also talked about how important it was for him to tell his daycare teachers and us if he wasn’t feeling well," says Desai.

If you have middle and high school kids, the best approach is to talk about the fact that COVID-19 causes many of the same symptoms as the flu, but that in some people (mainly older people) it can get much more severe. Also, stress the importance of practicing good hygiene.

Expert Tip

For elementary-aged children, Dr. Desai says to reinforce what to do: washing hands with soap and water while singing "Happy Birthday" twice, not touching your face, and coughing and sneezing into the crook of your elbow. 

Talk About Sticking to a Routine

The World Health Organization recommends that families keep their regular routines and schedules as much as possible. With schools and businesses closed throughout the country, this may be difficult for a lot of families. If changes need to be made, frame the conversation with a positive attitude.

Expert Tip

Kids will respond a lot better if parents remain calm and stay positive when shifting schedules to accommodate illnesses or shutdowns. 

Social Distancing

One unfortunate side effect of social distancing practices and widespread school closures is that your children are not able to spend time with their friends or family members outside the household.

This is a major disruption to their lives, so it's important to let them know that by staying home, they are helping a lot of people stay healthy. Highlight the fact that this won't last forever, and do what you can to provide outlets for your kids to see and talk to their friends or family with Zoom, FaceTime, and other digital options for as long as they are unable to see them in person.

Be Aware of Their Behavior

Many kids struggle with expressing their fear and concerns verbally. This can often lead to changes in behavior. "Depending on your child’s age, they may or may not have the communication skills to say how they are feeling, but most children and teens show their worries through their behavior," says Capanna-Hodge.

Signs of stress and anxiety to look for include problems sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, or sleep problems.

Her advice? "Be present and engaged (that means no phones) and see what your child is telling you. Are they expressing anger and frustration too easily? Or maybe they are withdrawing? Those behavioral signs give us clear indicators of how your child is feeling, and they should be your alert that they need better support."

What This Means For You

It's important that children hear accurate and helpful information about coronavirus from their parents or caregivers, rather than believing misleading or false information from friends or unreliable sources on the Internet.

Though it might be difficult at first to begin the conversation, keep in mind that afterward, both you and your child will likely feel better after discussing proactive measures to take about handwashing, telling adults if they feel unwell, and hearing them out about their fears and concerns.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Sara Lindberg
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on health, fitness, nutrition, parenting, and mental health.