How can we talk about the coronavirus situation with children?
The coronavirus is a topic that is now relevant to children and youths of almost all ages. It is constantly present in the media and in the words of friends and family members. Based on what we have heard on MLL’s Children and Youth hotline and chat, children and youths are actively following the media, and some are distressed by what they hear. We now need parents and other close-by adults to act as a counterbalance to the distressing news and the feeling of insecurity caused by social distancing.
It is important to discuss the thoughts, feelings and worries caused by this exceptional situation with children and youths. If a child seems anxious, you can directly ask them about their thoughts and fears. Sometimes the fears the child or youth has are very unrealistic and they are alleviated by being able to calmly discuss them in a safe environment. The parent should stay calm during the discussion. If you are anxious about the situation yourself, you should try to dispel your own anxiety with another adult first so that you do not transfer your own emotions to the child.
Many instructions recommend that you talk to the child at the appropriate age level. What this actually means is often left vague. The age level of the child can be determined by asking the child questions about their thoughts and experiences. Taking the child’s age level into account means using those words and concepts that the child is familiar with. You should also ensure that the child has understood what you have said. You could ask your child to describe in their own words how they understood what you said, for example.
Younger children process the issue at their own level of development by means of play and jokes, for example. The child must be allowed to do this. Meeting a child or youth at the appropriate age level means understanding that the child processes issues using the means that they have. However, you should always pay attention to your child’s play because it may arise from genuine fear and worry.
Some children are more sensitive and have stronger reactions to events around them and they may need a lot of calming down and calm discussion. The child may have unrealistic ideas about how quickly the disease spreads and what happens after one becomes infected. It is important to find out what exactly it is that frightens or worries the child. As a parent you should strive to assuage these fears. Talk to the child and make it clear that it is unlikely that the disease will infect them specifically, and even if that were the case, it can be overcome.
Other children may not have an emotional response to events that do not concern them specifically. You must not demand such a response from your child or become worried if your child does not become anxious over the events. If a child is not talking about the issue or worried about it, you should not turn it into a cause of worry for them. It is the duty of parents to ensure that their children follow the instructions concerning hygiene and moving about, but there is no reason to make children anxious about it.
Children and youths who have difficult experiences in their past or who are anxious by nature may become very distressed even by events that do not concern them directly. They need the presence and calming speech of preferably a close adult relative. Those children and youths with risk factors for the disease may also become very worried. Maintaining a neutral tone and dissipating one’s own worries with another adult can help youths deal with their own anxiety. If a child or youth exhibits strong symptoms of anxiety and they do not go away within days, you should ask a professional for advice (e.g., the school nurse or school psychologist) and come up with solutions to the situation together.
You should tell your child how infection can be prevented. Instruct them on how to carefully wash their hands and how to cough and sneeze into their sleeve instead of their hand. Concrete actions can provide a feeling of control. However, one should also emphasize that it is not dangerous if the child forgets to wash their hands every once in a while. You should also talk about how most of the people who fall ill only experience mild symptoms and eventually get better, and that children appear to be very resistant to the coronavirus.
You should let the child know that the purpose of many of the restrictions on everyday life is to prevent the spreading of the virus. By staying at home, we are protecting others, especially those belonging to high-risk groups, such as the elderly. You should emphasize that the situation is only temporary and that we will be able to return to normal one day. Talk about how adults are working incredibly hard to defeat the coronavirus and that medicines and vaccines are constantly being developed all over the world.
Talk about how you will be spending more time at home with the family than usual. Children and youths will undoubtedly be annoyed that they are not able to go to school or hobbies or visit their friends or grandparents. Remind them that the situation is only temporary and that you will get through it together. Talk about how your days will be scheduled and organised. The daily schedule should be similar to what the children and adults in your family are accustomed to under normal conditions. Talk to your children about how you will be keeping in touch with friends, grandparents and other relatives via the Internet or the phone, for example.
Have some mercy on yourselves: the crucial idea is that basic everyday life continues. Children’s well-being and sense of security are the first priorities. Contact your child’s school if you need help with their homework. Going out into nature either alone or together as a family can also alleviate anxiety.
A child or youth may also become anxious if they see that the adults are constantly following the coronavirus situation in the media or keep talking about it with other adults. You can protect your child by not watching the news with them. You should also think about how your media use supports your own well-being.
Staying at home all day can be distressing at times. You can seek help from many organisations and many municipal services are still available. Boldly ask your neighbours or others for help if you cannot go to the grocery store or pharmacy yourselves.