How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

Living Well | Jess Hirst and Jane Hutchinson | Posted on 27 May 2020

Psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg’s guide to talking to your kids about the coronavirus. 

Where did the virus come from? Will my grandparents get sick? Are we all going to die? Is it safe for me to go to school.

As one of Australia’s leading child and adolescent psychologists these are the questions Michael Carr-Gregg hears every day as he visits schools and helps his young clients try to make sense of a world turned upside down by a global pandemic. Family routines are out the window, the nightly news delivers grim league tables of rising death tolls, and everyone seems to be wearing masks. Suddenly the world seems a strange and uncertain space for children and adults alike.  

But while our natural inclination as parents and carers might be to try to shield children from the very real dangers challenging us all and pretend everything is normal, Michael says not talking to our children about coronavirus is not really an option.

Mother talking to her child

“You should definitely have a chat,” says Michael. “Even young children are seeing a whole lot of people with masks on, they’re hearing all the news and obviously there’s a disruption to their lives. Children love predictability. They thrive on it, in fact, and suddenly their life has changed, so we must give them an explanation.”

Talking to children about what’s going on also gives parents and carers the opportunity to set an emotional tone for thinking about the current situation, he says. “That tone should be: we’re alert but not alarmed. We’ve got this. We take it seriously, but we’re not panicking.”

How to talk to pre-schoolers about coronavirus

When talking to very young children, says Michael, we should be guided by their curiosity, answering their questions without overwhelming them with detail. “Simple, short, age- appropriate explanations to little kids is fine. And because they’re little kids, they’ll listen, believe and take what you’re saying very seriously.

“I probably wouldn’t use the term germ,” he says. “I would simply say there’s an illness and the good news is it really doesn’t affect children and when it does it’s like having a cold.”

He says children will often want reassurance that their pets are safe and they may be worried about their grandparents. “I’d tell them that the people who are most at risk are older, but reassure them that if we wash our hands and don’t touch our eyes, nose and mouth and we do what the government tells us, then we’ll be okay.”

“I’d also talk about the fact that we live in Australia and that we have a very good health system and wonderful doctors and nurses to care for us. Tell them there are scientists all over the world looking for a cure for this and that this situation won’t last forever. That’s about as much detail as you need to go into.”

Academic, psychologist and author Dr Lea Waters says young children may have trouble articulating their feelings and anxieties about coronavirus. “Maybe they aren’t talking about it in words, but their play or mood might have changed. It’s important to tune into your children,” she says. 

One way to encourage children to talk about their feelings, she suggests, is to get them to pretend that if they could speak with coronavirus – what would they say? 

How to talk to primary-school children about coronavirus

As with very young children, Michael says it’s important to speak reassuringly to primary- school children about coronavirus, especially now as they return to classrooms. “That’s key, because with this age group, if you don’t talk about it, they’ll fill the gap with a whole bunch of what-ifs. Their mind becomes like a fortune teller, but one that only makes negative predictions.”

He says children of this age will often pick up on things they hear from friends or siblings that they don’t necessarily understand, which can cause worry. “So start by asking them what they know and go from there. You don’t have to feed the rumour mill, you just have to find out what they’ve heard. Most of them will accept a logical, age-appropriate explanation from Mum and Dad.”

For example, children may have heard that the virus kills older people, and might fear their grandparents will die. “If they do express that, respond by telling them firstly how kind and beautiful it is that they’re worried about their grandparents,” says Michael. “Then explain that one of the reasons why we’re practising social distancing is that older people are more at risk but if we do the right thing then Grandma and Grandpa will be okay. Tell them that even if their grandparents do get sick, which hopefully they won’t, we have a very fine bunch of doctors and nurses to look after them.”

He says the best advice for parents of this age group is to focus on the things they can control, such as exercise, diet, sleep and creating a calm emotional atmosphere at home. Families may also want to invest time in pastimes such mindfulness, yoga and meditation. “These things might sound very middle-class, but we need them now more than ever,” he says.

These positive mental-health practices may also help parents manage their own anxieties about issues such as job insecurity and family finances. While these concerns loom large in many households, Michael says it’s important that parents keep such “adult worries” to themselves. “Children have a right to grow up feeling as safe and secure as possible. We don’t need to go into detail about our own anxieties with them. They need to know that the world is a secure and okay place to live in. If you’re experiencing distress, it’s important to reach out to friends or talk to a professional, but not in detail to your children.”

How to talk to teenagers about coronavirus

Teenagers connected to the worldwide web 24/7 likely know as much as we do about COVID-19. “With teenagers, we need to be honest and give them as much information as we can,” says educator and author Sharon Witt, whose new book Starting Secondary School, written with Michael Carr-Gregg, has just been released. “When tragic things happen, what they imagine and fear can be worse than the facts, so we need to tell them the truth. They need to know how serious this is and that if we follow the rules we can make a difference, but without evoking fear. Young adults should be alert but not alarmed.” 

While many teens are excited about the return to school, many will be anxious about the risks. Michael Carr-Gregg stresses that parents and carers have a responsibility to set a rational, calm and positive emotional tone around the issue. He says it’s important to encourage them to focus on what they can control: diet, exercise, mindfulness, relationships and sleep. “Those are the big ones. They’re very important. Tell them dwelling on the negatives is not going to get them anywhere."

Teens in their last year or two of school, in particular, might be experiencing grief or disappointment about missing out on milestone events such as a school formal or musical. He says it’s important to let teens express and experience their initial disappointment, “but don’t let them marinate in it. Do a reality check with them – is it really that bad? Talk about how you can put things into perspective. What are some other ways of thinking about this? And remind them that this is only temporary.”

Writing down their feelings might also help teens deal with their sense of loss or disappointment. “The principle of dealing with loss and grief is to express the experience of pain, to listen very carefully to the range of feelings that you have, recognise that they are valid, and know that painful feelings will diminish in time.”

As parents encourage these healthy, positive habits, Michael says it’s also important to keep an eye out for any signs of distress or anxiety in children. In younger children this may manifest itself as tantrums, clinginess or nightmares. Older children may show signs of anger, headaches or trouble sleeping. “That kind of behaviour over a prolonged period of time indicates that all is not well. It’s really about being tuned into our children, now more so than ever.”

If there are concerns that your child may not be coping, he recommends looking up Beyond Blue’s Child Mental Health Checklist. It provides a structured gauge on whether or not you should seek professional help. 

Top tips for discussing COVID-19 with children, from the Australian Psychological Society:

  • Speak to them about coronavirus in a calm manner. 
  • Ask them what they already know about the virus so you can clarify any misunderstandings they may have. 
  • Let them know that it is normal to experience some anxiety when new and stressful situations arise. 
  • Give them a sense of control by explaining what they can do to stay safe (e.g. wash their hands regularly, stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing). 
  • Not overwhelming them with unnecessary information (e.g. death rates) as this can increase their anxiety. 
  • Reassure them that coronavirus is less common and severe in children compared with adults. 
  • Allow regular contact (e.g. by phone) with people they may worry about, such as grandparents, to reassure them that they are okay.