Talking to Children About Coronavirus

Many of us are going to work and enduring new procedures and policies surrounding hygiene and social distancing. We are reading about the Coronavirus pandemic on social media, hearing about it on the news, and talking with colleagues and friends (at a distance). A lot is going on right now, and everyone is a little worried, we are experiencing stress and worry, we need to acknowledge that before we can move forward; and what worries us worries our children. So how do we begin talking to children about Coronavirus? Not unlike the fires that ravaged Australia recently, or other natural disasters, we can do our best to “shield” our children from the fear and concern, however, it is likely that they will hear it being talked about at school, from friends, or overhearing conversations. Yet, even if we manage to prevent the information from piercing their world, our own frantic, nervous, or anxious energy will. This is the power of interpersonal neurobiology and mirror neurons: monkey see, monkey do, monkey feel.

So how can we manage the feelings that arise, and how do we start talking to children about coronavirus?

First, it is important to know the facts

Misinformation and sensationalising are the most damage aspect of this crisis. It perpetuates fear, which creates heightened nervous systems and stress responses (which weakens immunity), and forces people into “push everyone aside” type mentalities. The greatest asset we have is to be calm, to be compassionate, and to be informed.

So, what are the facts?

Looking at details from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and NSW health, here are some important facts:

  • Children are NOT at a higher risk than adults to contract coronavirus. They appear to be the least most vulnerable age group. The evidence shows that adults make up the majority of cases.
  • The symptoms of coronavirus are consistent regardless of age; however, children with confirmed cases tend to have less severe symptoms/do not appear to be as impacted, though there is still more to be learned. Continue to keep watch for cold/flu-like symptoms (some children have experienced vomiting and diarrhoea).
  • Children do NOT need to wear masks, in fact, no one should be wearing masks unless they are medical staff providing care, you are a carer for someone who has a confirmed case of coronavirus, or you have a suspected and/or confirmed case. Face masks are not needed for the general public, especially if social distancing practices are been used appropriately.

For more information please see the NSW Health website 

After clearing some facts, and perhaps doing some reading from medical or governmental sources, it would be beneficial to consider your emotional state before talking with your children. Perhaps talk to your partner, a friend, or a professional. Someone who can be a grounding presence (not someone who will mirror your panic or fear). Someone who can provide empathy, validation, and reassurance. The reason for this is that “story follows state” (Deb Dana on Polyvagal Theory). We need our nervous system, or body, to be in a calm and relaxed state before we can begin to change our thinking and narrative. Having an external empathic presence helps not just from an emotional standpoint, but from a neurological one, remember the mirror neurons mentioned above? Don’t pretend to be calm when you’re not, this can have the opposite effect we are aiming for; it is best to address our feelings with an appropriate person/support. Slowing your breathing will also help to slow your heart rate down as well (an increased heart rate contributes to the felt sense of panic).

Be honest with yourself and the person you are talking to; ask what this situation brings up for you. It may be a generalised sense of fear, but it could be activating some earlier challenging experiences or trauma. For instance, if a person grew up in a family facing disadvantage, was homeless, or went through financial hardship, feelings of fear regarding coronavirus could be activating beliefs around deficit, not having enough, missing out, and so on. It is important to be reflective and consider that your overwhelm could be both about the current situation, and past experiences or fears. We can use this then as a therapeutic opportunity.

Most of all, try to avoid that which escalates panic. Don’t read posts, articles, or unreliable sources as this will continue to create an end of the world” sense of dread. Instead, look for the good. Look at how people and companies are supporting the community, such as grocery stores dedicating an hour for the aged and the disabled to shop in peace and get what they need. Or how some are creating care packages, medical centres working to create “drive-thru” testing areas to reduce exposure and so on. There is a lot of incredible work and consideration that is to be found and is very reassuring.

Now it’s time to talk.

It is important that we begin talking to children about coronavirus as it is something that they will be aware of to one degree or another; what matters most though is how we talk to them and the information we give. Here are some ideas:

  • Find out what they know. Simply ask the question “have you heard about coronavirus?” or “have you noticed teachers being extra clean at school?” ask them their thoughts. Depending on their age they may shrug in confusion, respond with a fantastical story, or share their fears. This will help you understand what is going on in their head.
  • Keep it age-appropriate and correct misinformation. Talking about death tolls and medical systems is not appropriate for small children, instead focus on lessons about germs and hygiene. For teens, it may be doing some research together and sharing what you found from your own research.
  • Focus on the helpers and the “plans.” That is what all the doctors, nurses, teachers, and government bodies are doing to take care of everybody.
  • Talk about what they can do to help. Providing information about cleaning hands, not touching faces, coughing into elbows, and alternative ways to say hello (instead of handshakes and hugs) gives children choice and power because they can act too. For the young, they will need reminding, but making it light and fun can help. For instance, talking about being one of the heroes who help to fight bugs with magic soap.
  • Reassure them with the measures you are taking too (if age appropriate) such as buying extra food, not going to extra-curricula activities, being extra clean and so on, to protect them and others. This creates a sense of “team” and that everyone in the family has ways of making each other, and others, safe.

What about behaviour?

Firstly, we must understand that our children (and our) behaviour is a language and it communicates to us what they are feeling and seeking (see the Needs Wheel for more information). At times like this, children may be clingier, more anxious, may regress in behaviours, or may become hyperactive (nervous energy). You may notice reluctance or bids for control (uncooperative/challenging behaviour) or exaggerated fears, and you may also notice changes in play themes (such as exploring germs, bugs, sickness, doctoring, and even death). There is no need to worry about these behaviours or themes of play, it is all a part of processing.

For big feelings such as tears, fears, and tantrums (even if they appear to be unrelated to what is happening) it is important to remember empathy. Empathy is the vehicle for processing. It is by staying present, acknowledging fears, and validating feelings that children (and adults) can accept, process, and move forward from an emotionally charged situation or experience. There is no “fixing” this fear and attempting to do so can have the opposite effect, they aim in this time of approach is to normalise and validate that it is ok to feel scared, worry, or unsure. That those feelings are felt every day by people, and that they help us navigate life. Accepting them leads to the ability to express them healthily as adults. For more information on what that looks like please see this article.

Lastly, we can take a play-based approach. Play is essential for children in meaning-making, developing skills, understanding experiences, navigating challenges, communicating and a great deal more. By utilising play we can support our children further process their fears and feelings, as well as learning and making sense.

This could be adult initiated, or child-initiated. If you see your child playing a game with the themes above join in! However, follow your child’s lead. Exaggerating fear or creating spectacular death scenes (all to get the giggles). If your child is laughing, they are healing! Laughter is the other side of the healing coin, (the other being crying with an empathic presence).

It could be adult initiated and you “play” with germs. Using props (symbolic play) or imagination. You could be a giant germ and your child must spray you with magic soap (spray bottle). You could have cloths with some water and soap and you, and your child needs to wash away all the germs in the house (being silly about it). It could be doll play/role play, your child being the teacher and you’re very dirty and need to wash your hands. Using this kind of play not only allows your child to process their experience and fears, but it also allows them to deepen their learning and practice hygiene further cementing the practice. For more on what a play-based approach looks like please see this article.

A play-based approach to “teaching” can also be more age-appropriate (for the small children) and be less overwhelming when talking to children about coronavirus, who may be older. Making up rhymes, using songs to wash hands, and generally inviting a sense of play can help to mitigate not only their fear but ours too.  

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