How to talk to kids about COVID-19 as we return — it’s like crossing the street

Like so many, we’ve been home isolated in our apartment for seemingly endless weeks now, but soon we’ll be sending our four-year old back to Gan. There, she and her fellow Jerusalem preschoolers will face the reality of a world where they can’t be totally walled off from the risks of contracting COVID. And her parents can’t be walled off from their obligation to talk with her about it!

There’s no shortage of advice about how to do this. Harvard Health Publishing’s page, advises striking “ a balance between answering questions well enough without fueling the flame of anxiety.” I think that’s right, but my experience of years of walking hospital halls as a chaplain has shown me that, when it comes to scary sickness, most people tend to be overly concerned with the reducing anxiety side of the equation, and avoid the answering questions fully side. I think that’s especially true with children with things that really scare us, like this virus. 

UNICEF’s 8 tips on the subject are particularly good at helping us find the right balance because they emphasize the same thing that all good chaplaincy does — listening and flexibility — instead of trying to give us some kind of set script of ‘right words’ to follow: “Start by inviting your child to talk about the issue. Find out how much they already know and follow their lead.”

In chaplaincy, we call his making an assessment — figuring out exactly where the other person is at and what they need. It’s an essential first step because every person and every situation is unique. So, if for example, it turns out that you have a very young child who hasn’t even heard about the outbreak, you may not need to explain it to them at all, and you can instead just focus on practical things they can do, like making sure they wash their hands regularly. 

Our four year old does know that “there are germs outside” and they are dangerous. One place she got this consciousness about the danger of germs, to my surprise, is from one of her favorite shows, Rainbow Ruby. In the “Tummy Trouble” episode, Ruby ‘saves the day’ after her friend gets sick by becoming a biochemist who looks at “bad bacteria” under a microscope. Eventually, she pours some kind of disinfectant on the bad bacteria and it runs away.  (Our daughter also knows that there are good bacteria too that live inside us and help us digest our food, but she didn’t learn that from the Rainbow Ruby episode.)  

Her ability to talk about disease like this shows that she knows the basic truth about ‘germs’ in a child-friendly way, which is the second of UNICEF’s 8 tips: “Children have a right to truthful information about what’s going on in the world, but adults also have a responsibility to keep them safe from distress. Use age-appropriate language, watch their reactions, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety.”

Watching your kids’ reactions is so important. The last of the UNICEF tips includes trying “to gauge their level of anxiety by watching their body language, considering whether they’re using their usual tone of voice and watching their breathing.”

This tip is an excellent reminder that it’s really hard to find out about a person’s anxiety level by asking them about it. Anxiety is something that is felt and expressed through a person’s body, so you have to watch out for physical things to do a good job of noticing how anxious your kid is as you close a conversation about the virus.

I think this tip is also a kind of bookend with the first tip — they’re both essentially assessments. You begin and end the conversation by trying to check in about your kids’ anxiety level and whether there are any important unresolved fears or questions.

I think these kinds of difficult conversations are kind of like talking to a kid about the importance of not running out into the road or about being super careful in crossing the street. As much as we want our kids to be free of anxiety, we also want them to know that there really is something very dangerous about the street and the cars that are in it. And we want to give them tools — like watching for a “walk” signal with street crossing, and hand-washing with COVID — that can help them feel some sense of control and agency over the situation. We should not minimize or avoid our kids’ concerns. We should acknowledge those concerns and reassure them by letting them know we’re listening to them and doing everything we can to protect them and ourselves. 

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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