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Talking to Your Children About COVID-19

It feels like the COVID-19 virus has turned our world upside down. Schools are closed, leaving teachers across our region teaching their lessons in front of a computer or smartphone instead of a classroom. Restaurants are only offering take-out or delivery. There are even digital signs on the highway telling us to stay home.

As a region, we’ve fought through natural disasters like the Ice Storm and Tropical Storm Irene. We’ve come back from national tragedies like the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But this feels different.

Everywhere we look, Coronavirus updates are in our face thanks to post after post after post we see in our social media feeds and the television news cycle that never ends.

It’s scary enough for an adult. Imagine how some children must feel.

That’s why it is so important for parents and guardians to talk to their children about COVID-19. The conversation can be difficult. The questions you are asked may seem impossible to answer. It’s those kind of talks that can make a dramatic difference in how a child processes what they’re seeing and what they’re experiencing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

We approached CVPH Chief of Psychology Aron Steward, PhD about the best way for parents to approach those conversations and answer those tough questions. She recommends following the guidelines from The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Among them: an important first step is creating an open and supportive environment where your children know they can ask questions. That includes acknowledging and validating their thoughts, feelings and reactions. Make sure they understand that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate. Just as important, however, is to avoid forcing them to talk about COVID-19 until they’re ready.

Establish trust by answering questions honestly. If a child realizes you’re “making things up,” they’re less likely to believe what you say or any reassurances you give that child in the future. That also means avoiding unrealistic promises. It’s fine to reassure children that they are safe in their house, but you can’t promise that there will be no cases of Coronavirus in your community.

Speak to your child’s age. If he or she doesn’t understand your words or the concepts you are discussing, that can lead to confusion and more fear. Knowledge is power. Help your children find accurate and up-to-date information by going to websites like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York State Department of Health or the World Health Organization.

You can set a good example by remaining calm when reacting to news about the coronavirus or having conversations with other adults about it. Children learn from watching their parents and other adults.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has some other things to consider:

  • Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Repeating questions can also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
  • Children tend to personalize situations. They may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members, friends or relatives.
  • Public health emergencies can be scary, but they can also bring out the best in people. Let your children know that there are lots of people helping those affected by COVID-19. It’s a good opportunity to show children that when something bad happens, there are always people who are willing to help.
  • Most kids will just want to be kids. They might rather play ball, climb trees or ride bikes than think about what’s happening across the country.

Children who are preoccupied with questions or concerns about the Coronavirus outbreak may need to be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Ongoing sleep disturbances
  • Intrusive thoughts or worries
  • Recurring fears about illness or death
  • Reluctance to leave parents

If such behaviors persist, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.

The world we live in right now may seem scary. Fortunately, many children are resilient. By being an open source of understandable information and reassurance, parents can help reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties for their children.

For the latest information on how Coronavirus is impacting CVPH, click here.