How to Talk to [your] Kids about Corona

Along with oatmeal, cheerios, and coffee for the grownups, we’ve been starting our mornings with an update on the coronavirus. It’s not that we, as parents, initiated this. It’s our kids who are giving us the updates. After they check their WhatsApp messages every morning, they go straight to the New York Times and see what has changed since they went to sleep. “Italy has more than Iran!” “Five more in Scotland!”

Even if they weren’t proactively seeking this information, it would be difficult to avoid. On the news, in playground conversation, in the announcements after Shabbat services – it’s everywhere. So how do we, as parents and as a community, support our children in this trying context?

  1. Do not try to avoid it. If kids think you are hiding something from them, it will only elevate their anxiety. Talking about it makes it less scary and presents an opportunity for you to hear what they are thinking. Providing facts in a developmentally appropriate way can give them a sense of security and context for what they hear outside of the home. It can help them discern rumors from reality.
  2. Know your kids. If your children are young enough to not be consuming the news themselves, you should think about what they need to know and how they will process the information. We simultaneously want to protect our children from being overwhelmed by fear of a pandemic while allowing them to feel that they understand what is going on. One way to provide a sense of security is to…
  3. Explain what you/they can do to stay safe. Children will be comforted to know that there are concrete steps to reduce the risk of getting sick. They may feel empowered to know that washing their hands for 20 seconds and avoiding unnecessary handshakes and other physical contact might help.
  4. Whenever possible, stick to [a] routine. This is a tough one. Many events and trips have been canceled, schools and college campuses have moved to online learning, and thousands of individuals and families have been quarantined. Not exactly a recipe for “sticking to a routine.” Despite that, search for a way to schedule your day and your children’s day in a manner that is both feasible and beneficial. If you are in quarantine or just home for more hours than typical, jot down a schedule. It might include mealtimes, time for family board games, quiet reading, and time for a movie. There is security in structure, even if it’s not the structure we’re used to. This is often particularly true for children with autism or other developmental disabilities, who may find a lack of structure overwhelming and scary.
  1. Take care of yourselves. Anxiety is not just for kids and what’s happening is objectively scary. Make sure you have someone you can talk to in case you’re feeling overwhelmed and know that you are not alone in this. At the same time, try to manage your own anxiety prior to engaging in these conversations with your kids.
  1. Keep an open line of communication. The situation is dynamic, with drastic shifts in policy and reality occurring on a daily basis. Let your kids know that you are available to talk and answer any questions that come up. For younger kids, give them the opportunity to express themselves through play or drawing. Let them know that, even if we don’t know exactly how this will all play out, we’re in this together.
About the Author
Judah is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Child Psychology and Special Education at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University. He is chair of the graduate division in Special Education and co-founder of the Autism Center at Hebrew University.
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