As we prepare for school to begin, those of us that are sending our kiddos slowly back out into the world may find ourselves explaining what has changed (again) in the last few months. After all, we have been explaining to our children why its safest to stay at home and now, some of us are telling them they are safe back at school. Here offering us a few guideposts for talking about the coronavirus with children of different ages is our friend, Dr. Chad Brandt, a therapist who specializes in anxiety in children and teens.
How to Talk to Children about COVID-19 and School
Anxiety about COVID-19 and how it will change the world are spreading as fast as the virus itself. As parents, we feel this anxiety and so do our children. Children are naturally perceptive and will look to their parents for guidance on how to react as their world changes. You want to help your children through this of course, but how do you talk to a young child about a global pandemic? And what do you do as your child has to return to school and you return to work? I have a few tips here to help you navigate these conversations with your children:
- Be open and honest. Children know when we are keeping the truth from them. I would advise against telling your child that nothing is happening, or that everyone will be fine. Below are some examples of how to be open and honest with your children about coronavirus for different age groups
- For a younger child. I would advise a short but honest approach. “There is a sickness going around and we are trying to keep everyone safe by not getting it ourselves, and not giving it to others. We do this by staying home and only going out when we have to. We’re also washing our hands more often. If we do this for a little while everyone will get a chance to get healthy and we will get to go back to playing with your friends.” You can also address challenges or anxieties they may face at school: “your teacher will wear a mask to help keep you safe. If you would like, you can ask her about it. She is always there to help you.”
- For an older child. I would advise a more in-depth strategy while keeping the facts intact. “Many people are getting sick and we are staying home to keep from spreading the virus. This virus is dangerous to some people, usually people over the age of 70. If you get sick, it’s likely that it will not be a bad sickness for you. If this happens, we will take it seriously and make sure you are okay.” As they return to school make sure they have a plan. Give them hand sanitizer, make a hand-washing plan, give them extra masks, practice telling others to maintain social distance, so they feel empowered to keep themselves safe at school.
- For teenagers and young adults. I would advise that you speak to them similarly to how you would speak to a peer. Be open and honest about your worries, the realities of the situation, and how you are moving on with your day despite the anxiety. For older children to see their parents have real emotions and overcome them is usually more meaningful than the advice itself.
- Do not linger! If your children have questions answer those questions honestly and move on with the conversation. If we can answer questions and then move on to other conversation topics, then we are sending them the message that generally things are okay. If we spend too much time talking about coronavirus, then we are sending the message that the threat is large. The way you convey the message to your children may mean just as much, if not more, than the message itself.
- Use this as a teaching moment in dealing with anxiety and change. Our children will grow up and they will experience stressors, anxieties, natural disasters, and more. Use this as an opportunity to teach them how to feel anxiety, make a reasonable plan to handle uncertainty, and move forward with their lives. If you can make a plan and continue moving forward with your day despite the pandemic you will show them how to react by example. Again, actions speak louder than words, the more you can show them that you are able to move on and accomplish your daily tasks the more likely they will be to follow suit now and in the future.
Dr. Chad Brandt is a provisionally licensed psychologist with expertise in treating anxiety-based disorders. Dr. Brandt is a father of three, husband to a loving wife, and a member of Board of Directors at A Children’s House for the Soul. wwww.drchadbrandt.com