I have been reluctant to write a piece about the Coronavirus for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to fuel the sense of worry or even panic that seems to be building, and 2) there are many articles on the same topic circulating in cyberspace. But after I received 5 different emails today asking the question “How do I talk to my kids about the virus?” I changed my mind.
Talk of the coronavirus COVID-19 is everywhere. People are wearing face masks which is a new sight to many kids. There is more talk and reminders about handwashing. It is unavoidable, and it needs to be addressed. Even if you haven’t yet talked directly to your child, I am pretty sure s/he has heard something about it. Children are talking about it on the playground and on the bus. And, like a game of Telephone, the reality and the facts are getting stretched beyond the reality.
Whether or not you should directly bring it up with a child 6 years and beyond has an easy answer. YES! With children younger than 6 years, you need to observe and listen your child to determine if s/he has questions s/he is not asking. Not talking about something can actually cause a child to worry. And as I have said repeatedly in my blogs about how to address specific tender topics, you want to be the parent to whom the child will come for honest answers to all of his questions. Talking about the Coronavirus is another opportunity to be that parent. It is also the chance to clear up misinformation, to give factual information, and to provide the reassurance your child may need.
Children are incredibly absorbent. The more quietly we talk, the more they listen. They don’t hear you when you call them for dinner, but they sure do hear what you whisper on the phone. If you are worrying about school closing or canceling your upcoming trip, talk about it later. Save your adult conversations for your private time. And remember, the walls have ears.
Take care of your own anxieties with regard to the virus first, as your children will take their cues for how to feel about the Coronavirus from you. Especially young children look to you for cues about their safety. You need to be the confidence they lack.
Different age children will require different degrees of information. You may have to have one conversation with your 4 year old and quite a different discussion with your 8 year old.
Here a few tips to help:
Find out what you child knows. As we parents tend to over talk, to say too much, take the time to ask your child what s/he has heard about the virus first. If your child has neither brought up the topic nor asked any questions, you can start by asking a simple question, “Have you heard about a new illness that some people have?” With an older child, you can be more direct, “Has anyone been talking about the Coronavirus?”
Correct any misinformation and give the child the facts you know. To that end, take some time to explore the internet to have your answers at the ready. “It is true that some people are very sick with this virus. It is not at all true that everyone is dying.” But do not dismiss or downplay her real fears. Rather acknowledge and validate them as you give the factual information, correcting misconceptions.
Young children are egocentric. It would not be uncommon or surprising for a child to ask, “Am I going to die?” and “Are you (parent) going to die?” Even though we cannot, of course, promise that we won’t get sick (or die), it is your job to reassure your child. “We are well and healthy, and we do everything we can to stay that way. You are not going to die, and neither am I.”
There are those who take issue with this reassurance. This is not the time to say, “Gee, I hope I won’t die.” Just know that if you do, you are likely to have a whole lot more issues to address than the Coronavirus.
Explain what a virus is. The definition of a virus is very difficult for a child to understand. Suffice it to say that “A virus is a kind of sickness, like the flu. There are lots of different kinds of viruses.” Depending upon the child, you might add “People get sick in different ways. Sometimes someone gets a bad cold with lots of coughing and sneezing. Others just get a sore throat.” Tell your child, “The Coronavirus is a new sickness that doctors and scientists haven’t seen before. The scientists who study these things are working hard to figure out how to help people who have the Coronavirus to get better quickly. Some are working on creating a vaccine, like the flu shot, to prevent people from getting the virus.”
Teach about germs. Most children young and old have learned about germs in school. In the same way children hear about “sugar bugs” from their dentist, they need to know that germs are the way sickness and illness are carried from one person to another. (There are many fun, kid size explanations of germs in books, online–like an old episode of The Magic School Bus–and all over YouTube. Be sure to preview each first!)
Germs make us sick. Explain to your child that it is through germs, teeny tiny living things that are invisible to you, that we get sick. They are so small that they come into our bodies and we don’t even notice. We pick up other people’s germs through our mouths, our noses, and our eyes. They spread through the air in sneezes, coughs, and even breaths.
Teach how we guard against germs. Explain to your child that one of the ways we have of protecting ourselves from germs IS by proper handwashing and use of hand sanitizer. (Share how to do so—20 second wash—and model it every time you wash.) Set new routines for cleanliness and make them habits. Try not to be too hard on your child as s/he is learning to do things s/he has never done before, like washing hands SO much. In addition,
- DRY hands thoroughly (and not on jeans). Toss the paper towel.
- Use a tissue to blow or pick your nose and immediately put it in the trash. Boogers carry germs, too.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue if possible, but your elbow is better than spraying germs into the air! Be sure to wash hands after sneezes and coughs.
- Try NOT to touch your face. We touch surfaces that have germs, then we put germy fingers in our mouths or noses or eyes. Yuck!
- Practice using fist bumps instead of hand holding with friends at school.
What are symptoms? Help your child to learn that the symptoms we experience from any sickness are a sign that our body is working to get well. When you have a tummy ache and you don’t want any food, that is your body’s way of letting your intestines get better without having to deal with food. Bodies want to get better. That’s one of the amazing thing about living creatures. That’s what they are programmed to do.
Teach about immunity. Children of all ages can learn that bodies are protected from getting sick by their immune system. We have immunity against all kinds of things; we are protected from them. There are ways that we help our bodies to be strong and immune from getting sick. We do that by getting lots of sleep, by eating foods that are healthy and feed the immune system (fruits and vegetables), by drinking plenty of water, and by staying free from germs. It is especially important to build our immune system in these ways for when there are lots of illnesses around. A strong immune system helps a body not to get sick; your body can do a better job of fighting off the germs.
Do some exploring with your child. With all the questions your child might have, it is a great time to find answers together. Search on Google or ask your neighbor the doctor!
Explaining School Closures or Activity Cancellation. In the event of either of these, you can explain to your child that her school (or gymnastics class) is trying to stop the spread of germs. By closing school there are not so many children together who might get and give one another’s germs. They will clean the whole school to get out all the germs. It is the safe thing to do.
It’s all over the world! Take a look at a map or a globe and help your child to see that this new sickness is popping up all over the world. It will be kind of amazing to him. Point out the countries where there have been more cases. But almost every country will have experienced the virus by the time you read this blog. It is important to stress that it is not anyone’s fault, at the same time explaining how it spread around the world (travel). Emphasize that this is a world-wide problem and everyone is trying to help everyone. There is the silver lining to an otherwise scary story. We are truly brothers and sisters, looking out for and helping one another all over the world.
Thank you Betsy! Sick Simon by Dan Krall is a great book for younger kids to explain about germs and how sickness travels.
Betsy Brown Braun says
Thanks so much, Angela. I hope others will post good options for books, etc.. with which they have had success in teaching kids about germs and immunity.