How to Talk to Your Kids about COVID-19 so They Won’t Worry

COVID-19 is a sickness that is caused by a new type of coronavirus that has received a ton of attention in the media recently.

coronavirusPeople often call this virus just “coronavirus,” but the reality is that this is a new strain of a preexisting family of viruses. The correct name of the illness caused by this strain is COVID-19. Naming things isn’t always that important, but in this case, I think it gives a little clarity. The new strain of coronavirus seems to have originated from Wuhan, China and has spread internationally. There are cases of COVID-19 in the United States, but as of 2/28/20, there were no cases in Vermont. Most likely there will be COVID-19 infections in most areas of the United States, and it is important to understand a little about this infection. 

To start, I am not a doctor, nor am I a medical care provider of any kind. I’m a mom, and I am informed. Nothing I am writing is meant to take the place of any recommendations made by medical care professionals. The best, most in-depth and current information is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

My professional background is Public Health though, and infectious diseases have been my focus, professionally, prior to my move back to Vermont in 2011. I am sharing my impressions and knowledge gained from research because last night, at 9:30 PM, shortly after I finished eating the popsicle I snuck into bed away from my daughter’s prying eyes, my daughter burst into my room confessing that she was so, so scared about “coronavirus.” I’ve spent years talking to people about infections, and talking to my daughter wasn’t challenging, but it occurred to me that not everyone may be as comfortable as I am talking about COVID-19. 

mother and daughter talkingTo help you understand this infection before you try to relieve your kids’ worry, it’s helpful to think of COVID-19 like the flu’s cousin.

Stay with me here. Some years, the strain of flu that we are hit with is awful. Many people get sick, and some very elderly, or very young, or people with weakened immune systems (those with cancer, diabetes, anyone who has had any sort of tissue replacement, etc) may die. Did you know that between 12,000 and 61,000 people die of the flu annually in the United States? This is one reason I always get a flu shot. I want any additional protection I can get, and it is important to me to do my part to protect those among us who are not able to get vaccinated. COVID-19 is not the flu or its cousin, but it is a respiratory illness spread person to person from water droplets from talking, coughing, or sneezing, just like the flu. Infection may also be possible from touching a surface that was recently touched by an infected person and then putting the contaminated fingers in your mouth, nose, or eyes, also just like the flu. Because this is a new strain of coronavirus, not a lot of information is available about it. Furthermore, in this comparison, COVID-19 is much more serious and more deadly than the flu. It does appear, however, that younger people, including children, are much less at risk from COVID-19. There are no available vaccines for COVID-19. COVID-19 also appears to be easier to catch than the flu.

We have made HUGE, GIGANTIC advances in treatment and care for infectious diseases in the past 100 years. Unlike some historic flu and other infectious disease outbreaks, we now have many more knowledge and treatments available to us. We have antiviral medicines. We have Tamiflu. We have antibiotics. We have Gatorade, elderberry syrup, hot tea, and local honey. We have cough drops. We also know a lot more about how diseases like the flu and COVID-19 are spread. We know to cough into our elbow, and we know to wash our hands with soap and warm water for over 20 seconds. We know how to prepare for sickness, and we know how to not spread sickness. COVID-19 is worse than the flu, but again, most people who are infected with either will not have any sort of grave outcome. Everything really is going to be ok. 

When I was a kid, living in the Caribbean, HIV filled the news. My classmates and I whispered about it constantly, and I remember telling my dad that people told me that there was a man going around with a syringe filled with infected blood, trying to infect students. I was petrified. This was just a stupid rumor, and I smile when I think back about how dumb I was. But this also gave me some insight into what my 9 year-old daughter and her friends could be talking about and how easy it is for rumors and misinformation to spread.

scared girlI will forever believe that knowledge and love are the most powerful tools we have to fight fear. Am I excited about the idea of a new sickness? No, not at all. Am I scared? Also no. I know what knowledge is available about COVID-19, and I’ve considered what I need to do to be prepared. I have talked to my daughter about this infection so that she doesn’t have to be worried either. I would encourage you to chat with your kids as well, multiple times, so they are not silent with fear. 

Here are my tips for talking to your kid(s) about COVID-19 (I just call it as coronavirus to my daughter, because that’s the term I think she is most likely to hear from her peers.) I am no therapist, but I am a mother, and this is what I am doing in my own home. I believe in age-appropriate honesty and keeping serious conversations clear and brief. 

  • Ask your child if she has heard anything about coronavirus at school. Gauge her level of interest, information, and worry. Let her vent. 
  • Reflect back on what you heard. Say, “I heard you say that (blah blah blah)… Is this what’s concerning you about coronavirus?”
  • Teach your child the basic facts about coronavirus: it is like a cold or the flu but a little more serious. People who have it can give it to other people by coughing, or sneezing, and it may be possible to pick up germs on surfaces. 
  • Review hand-washing techniques: you must always wash your hands for the duration of the Happy Birthday song hummed two times. This really is one of the best ways to reduce transmission! You need to wash your hands before eating, after using the bathroom, before cooking or touching food, after playing with pets, and after blowing your nose. EVERY SINGLE TIME. And washing is better than using hand sanitizer, but you can use hand sanitizer in a pinch. 
  • Make sure your child knows to tell you if he’s not feeling well. 
  • Explain that you are doing everything you know to do to keep her and your family safe. 
  • Don’t watch the news in front of your child (this is another reason why my daughter was so worried,) and also limit adult conversations when children are present. 

Please note: because this strain of coronavirus likely originated in China, there have been racist associations with this infection. Children may think that all Asian people are carrying the disease and this may lead to racist bullying in schools. Please take a moment to find out if your child is thinking this way, and explain how this is simply false information. 

family talking about a serious matterThat’s about it. Helping your child process scary news can be tricky, but it’s a good skill, and also helps us from letting our own imaginations run away from us. 

Have your kids expressed worry about COVID-19? What have you found helpful in explaining this situation to them and also helping to reduce their fears? 

How to Talk to Your Kids about COVID-19 so They Won't Worry

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