How to talk to your children about COVID-19

Expert advice from a doctor about helping your kids understand what is happening

How to talk to your children about COVID-19

This is an unsettling time for adults around the world, let alone children who have had their whole lives disrupted by the coronavirus.

Kids across the globe are off school for the foreseeable future, there are no sports activities or playdates and many can't even venture outside their front gate.

But, while it might be tempting to try and shelter your children from any discussion about coronavirus or COVID-19, you could be doing them a disservice.

Not only has everything familiar to them been turned on its head, they will have heard adults discussing everything that is going on in the world, or have been exposed to it on social media and television.

Dr Maurice Khoury, specialist paediatrician at Healthpoint Hospital urges mums and dads to sit down with their kids to explain the global pandemic in a way they will understand.

“It is vital to talk to your child to ensure they have understood the message about protective hygiene habits, but also to ease their anxiety and correct misinformation,” says Khoury.

“Children are extremely perceptive, and if adults are not talking about something, it can make them worry more. They could also be distressed by hearing messages they do not fully understand or that are taken out of context, particularly if it comes from sources such as social media rather than experts.”

Dr Khoury adds, however, that the conversation does not have to be an in-depth discussion. Rather focus on finding out what your kids already know, and provide reassurance.

“Take your cues from your child; find out how they are feeling and encourage them to talk to you if they have any questions or hear something that worries them. You can do this by asking open-ended questions to find out what they already know and dispel any fears they might have," he explains.

“Above all, watch their reactions and body language, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety,” Khoury advises.

The Healthpoint paediatrician also says that you should adapt your message for their age group, and emphasise how germs can make us sick, but not in an overly alarming way that could encourage an obsessive fear of germs.

“If your child is very young, you can simply explain that germs can make people sick, and that washing your hands can help you stay healthy, " he says.

"Supplement this with fun activities such as singing a song together for 20 seconds (for example, two rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’) while hand-washing to demonstrate how long this activity should take.”

Dr Khoury adds that while you should speak to your children about the virus, you should also limit the time spent talking and thinking about it, and try to keep life as normal as possible.

“Ensure that even while practicing social distancing, you still do fun things and don’t focus on the virus.

Even though your child is at home, keep days structured, with regular mealtimes and bedtimes. It is also an ideal time to focus on indoor activities such as crafts, board games, or video-chatting to their grandparents.”

He also suggests being more vigilant than usual in monitoring and limiting social media and screen time.

“The virus is such a media focus at the moment, and more worryingly, alarming and incorrect messages can be spread easily through social media. Explain to your child that some information isn’t true, and that it is best to rely only on experts,” he says.

Here are five tips from Dr Khoury to help your child understand what is going on.
1. Answer your child’s questions honestly and in a simple way. Remember, it’s all right if you can’t answer everything; the main idea is to let your child know they can ask you anything. If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess, just explain that this is a new virus and that not everything about it is known, but as soon as it is, you will let them know.

2. While you don’t want to create alarm, also don’t minimise or dismiss their concerns. Acknowledge their feelings, and let them know that it is natural to feel nervous, but that there is no need for panic.

3. Your child will pick up on how you are feeling, so remain calm. Reassure them that doctors, scientists and governments all over the world are working together to make everything better, and to keep everyone safe.

4. It can help children to make them realise they are not powerless, and that they can play their part by practising good hygiene habits such as hand-washing, not touching their faces, and sneezing or coughing into their armpits. Explain that by following these rules, they are helping to keep other people safe as well by not spreading disease.

5. Help to put things into context by reassuring your children that they themselves are not likely to get very sick from the disease, but that they should still be careful to make sure they don’t spread it as it can make adults sick. Make sure that they know schools and leisure activities are being curtailed not out of immediate danger, but rather as a special precaution to protect people and make sure people stay healthy.

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