Anxiety is everywhere right now, and, like our fears about COVID-19, it can feel inescapable.
Everyone is talking about it. Constantly. And for a good reason: our lives have been upended, and uncertainty surrounds us. Children can sense the anxiety about coronavirus COVID-19 even if they don’t know the details. In “normal times,” having a predictable schedule can reduce anxiety. But now, for many children, schools and activities that provide structure are indefinitely on hold. So how can we talk to kids about COVID-19 and reduce their anxiety at the same time?
Here are 6 steps to talk to children about Coronavirus COVID-19 and lessen their anxiety:
Your children may know more about what is going on with COVID-19 than you think. Start the conversation by letting them tell you what they’ve heard. Ask if they know what can help reduce their risk of getting (or spreading) the virus. Can they explain why these interventions help?
My kids know exactly which towns have positive cases in our state, and it’s not because I’m telling them. As soon as their friends hear anything about coronavirus, accurate or not, they are sharing it. Because everyone will be talking about COVID-19 until this has passed, check in with them frequently about what is being said.
Once you have a clear idea of what they know, you can tailor the conversation to correct misinformation, reframe what they’ve heard, and fill in the gaps. Instead of having adult-level conversations about COVID-19, explain what is going on in a way they will understand. Children don’t need every detail about the projected trajectories of the virus unless it’s developmentally appropriate. Many pre-teen and teens will need to know all the details to help them understand why social distancing is critical.
Most kids aren’t too discerning about if the news they hear is from a high-quality source. They are prone to believing what is posted on TikTok or on other sites they visit. It’s important to help them understand that the information shared on social media isn’t always accurate.
Blanket denials or empty reassurance about the COVID-19 outbreak will be confusing for kids and less effective at allaying fears than having a conversation about the facts. If you say, “It can’t happen to you,” most kids know this isn’t true. It’s hard to deny the possibility exists when schools are closing, children can’t see their friends, or even go to a playground. Telling them there isn’t anything to worry about, although momentarily nice to hear, won’t help them feel more in control.
Instead, validate them and acknowledge the situation by telling them it’s normal to be frightened when worrisome things like COVID-19 happen. At the same time, remind them that there are experts all over the world, working hard to minimize the spread of this virus and treat people that get sick.
Teach them what they can do to reduce their chance of getting the virus. Empower them and lessen anxiety by focusing on actions they can take to help.
This is a good time to review with your children what you and other loved ones are doing to reduce the chance of exposure. Kids want to know how they can avoid getting coronavirus COVID-19 but they also want to ensure the people they love are going to be okay.
Remember, children take their cues from adults. If parents are openly anxious, have alarmist conversations in front of them, or are obsessively watching the news, kids will panic even more. Parents model coping skills and teach kids how to react to new situations.
To reduce your anxiety, limit your intake of the news, and stick to trusted sites like the Center for Disease Control. Minimize information overload because sometimes, too much information gathering becomes problematic. Hearing constant alarm on the news isn’t going to help you or your children manage fears.
Be alert for signs your child’s anxiety is increasing and they need a break from hearing about coronavirus. Look for behavior changes such as difficulty sleeping or clinginess that differs from their usual. Obviously, hand washing is essential, but if a child begins to wash excessively or wants to talk about the virus continually, take steps to contain their anxiety.
Here are some ways to lessen the worry:
Try basic stress reduction techniques
Spend time having fun
This is a difficult time for all of us. COVID-19 has collectively forced us to abruptly alter our lives, and we are surrounded by worldwide anxiety. As much we don’t want this to be happening, can you find any silver lining outside the cloud of fear and uncertainty? Maybe you will have more opportunities for quality family time? Although far from a relaxing vacation, could this be a chance to slow down, re-evaluate priorities, and set goals?
I hope the above recommendations help to reduce your children’s anxiety about COVID-19 and also contain yours. We are in this together, and if we all do our part and take the proper steps (beyond buying all the toilet paper), we can save lives and come through this with a deeper understanding of what is most important to us.
This is a good time to revisit this article:
A version of this article first appeared here.
Dr. Melissa Welby is a psychiatrist that participates in people’s process of discovery, empowerment, and search for satisfaction and happiness. She treats a variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety & panic attacks, adult ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorders), bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and borderline personality disorder. She is also the current president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Association.She completed her Internship & Residency at Cambridge Hospital, affiliate of Harvard Medical School, 2000 to 2004. Dr. Melissa Welby is Board Certified in General Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 2005 to present.