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How to Talk With Your Children About Coronavirus

A father talks to his son on the living room couch.
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With the coronavirus pandemic, you may be wondering how to talk with your children about everything that’s happening in the world. They’re probably confused about why communities are quarantining and schools are closed. But what should you tell them? How much information is too much?

Kids might have a lot of questions based on what they’ve heard from friends, overheard between parents or seen on the Internet or television. Even if you shield them from directly watching the news, they still absorb information about the situation from everyone around them.

Rather than leaving it up to the media, friends or other people in their lives, you can choose to be the go-to source of information for your children. Here’s how to help kids understand what’s going on — without scaring them.

Provide Enough Information, but Don’t Overload

You don’t have to have a formal sit-down with your kids to explain everything. Simply start by letting them know that you are open to talking and listening. Any question is welcome at any time. Keeping the lines of communication open is important.

It’s best not to push children into talking about the virus until they’re ready. But when they do ask questions, answer them honestly — otherwise their imaginations may latch onto worst-case scenarios.

Just don’t volunteer too much extra information, as this can overwhelm them. Pay attention to your children’s cues and emotional responses.

Be Calm and Reassuring

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you remain calm and reassuring while talking with your children about coronavirus. Remember that they will pick up cues from you as to how to react emotionally.

If they’re worried or anxious, help them cope with the stress by modeling calm behavior and taking care of your own mental and emotional health.

It might make them feel better to hear that lots of people are helping one another during the COVID-19 outbreak. There are physicians caring for patients, people bringing groceries for their neighbors and scientists looking for solutions. Emphasizing these positives can show children that even when something scary is going on, there are people to help.

Most younger children are going to focus on the risk to themselves — they may worry that they can catch it. Reassure your little one that kids seem to have milder symptoms. And explain all the steps your family is taking to stay safe.

Scrub Up on Safety Precautions

Children feel empowered when they take action, as do adults. So focusing on things like proper hand-washing hygiene and social distancing, including quarantining, can help reduce stress by increasing our feelings of control over coronavirus.

Help your children get into a good hand-washing habit. The CDC says: “Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Follow these five steps — wet, lather (make bubbles), scrub (rub together), rinse and dry. You can sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.”

Other ways you can help kids stay healthy and safe:

  • Coughing and sneezing into your elbow, not your hands
  • Exercising and eating healthy foods
  • Getting lots of rest and sleep

Validate Their Feelings

Let your children know that their feelings, reactions and thoughts are all appropriate and valid. Tell them that you hear how they’re feeling and that you think their concerns and questions are important.

Sometimes, children ask for reassurance by asking the same question over and over again. But if your child’s distress increases — no matter how many times you answer the questions — it might be helpful to seek additional support, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Talk with your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about reassurance-seeking behaviors.

Share Facts and Support Your Children at Their Level

The conversation you have with your 12-year-old son may not help your five-year-old daughter. Customize the information you share based on your children’s ages and developmental stages. Use words and concepts they can easily understand.

Babies and toddlers: Stay calm and maintain normal routines. Follow their lead. Avoid exposing them to media coverage. If they show signs of being anxious or clingy, provide extra time together and reassurance.

Preschoolers: Less is more. Magical thinking prevails among this age set. Young children need to know that you will keep them safe and that adults are in charge.

If they ask you a question, answer directly, simply and calmly. Take their lead and don’t talk about things unless they ask questions or are distressed.

Reassure them that we are doing everything we can to stay healthy. Limit media exposure. Stick with normal routines as much as possible, but if your usual routines are disrupted due to quarantine, develop new routines and stick to them.

Elementary age: At this age, children have a greater awareness of current events. They have likely talked with friends at school and overheard your conversations. But their thinking is still concrete.

Be extra patient, as they may be more sensitive and irritable. Try to continue normal home routines. If school is closed, create new routines that continue to promote education and learning.

Kids at this age may worry about the impact on others as well as themselves. They may imagine worst-case scenarios. Ask questions about where they got their information, then gently and calmly give them reassurance while remaining honest.

Middle school: Kids this age are very aware of coronavirus and what is going on. They may be focused on what will happen in the future. Stick with the known facts and help them take things day by day.

Keep conversation open with your kids about what they see on social media or TV. Teach them how to know which information sources are reliable. You can look up information together and talk about it while you read.

High school: Adolescents have more abstract thinking skills. They are likely to have a high awareness of the situation and probably had conversations in class with their peers and teachers.

Teens may have big questions about health, public policy and the economy. As a parent, discussing these topics with them if they are interested can help them process their feelings.

Some teens might seem more preoccupied with themselves or their social lives than coronavirus. They might be avoiding facing their feelings, so be ready to listen when they do decide to open up.

Encourage teens to limit their media consumption, perhaps checking news only a couple of times a day. Consider setting up a technology curfew to limit being overwhelmed.

Be Truthful

Children often sense when you’re holding back information. It’s important that your children can trust you to tell them the truth and reassure them in the future.

Limit Exposure to News and Frightening Images

While you’ll need to take in the news yourself, consider screening it so that your children aren’t exposed to it as well. Use headphones or earbuds or read the news on your tablet or phone.

Avoid exposing your children to frightening images and scenes. Repeatedly viewing these graphics can be confusing, disturbing and overwhelming. Take media breaks and limit your children’s media consumption.

Keep Talking

Ultimately, most kids just want to be kids. It may be hard for them to grasp the enormity of the situation. They may simply want to do kid things and not think or talk about coronavirus.

Follow their cues and don’t overload them, but let them know that you’ll keep them updated and that they can always ask you anything or tell you how they feel.

Children should know that while we don’t have all the answers, we’re learning more about coronavirus and how to stop its spread every day.

More Help Is Here

To stay up-to-date with the latest coverage on coronavirus, and for more facts to help you talk with your children, visit our Coronavirus Resource Hub.

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