How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

Toyota Believe logoWhile all the grown-ups are busy dealing with the ramifications of a global pandemic, you can be sure our kids are working hard to process the news and views they’ve also been exposed to. Here are some helpful tips on how to navigate COVID-19 with our kids, ensuring they are feeling okay and know how to look after themselves.

Keep the lines of communication open

Firstly, we want to open the conversation and encourage our kids to talk to us. An easy way to do this is to ask our kids what they already know about COVID-19. This gives you the opportunity to respond; reassuring any fears and correcting any misinformation. A healthy amount of information is helpful, but the extent of detail that you share with your child depends on their age and personality. As much as possible, try and ensure that you are the main source of your child’s information, so you can inform their view and monitor how they are interpreting the details they have heard elsewhere. It is important that our children know we’re always available and here to listen – that they can bring all their questions to us whenever they need to, and that all their feelings are welcome.

This is probably a good time to also consider how much media your children are being exposed to. Too much information can lead to anxiety. Keep the lines of communication open, but use your discretion to change the subject when you sense your child is getting overwhelmed by details and worry. Help them process the information or questions that they may have and then redirect them to something else, reassuring your child that you will check in later on the topic of viruses, but now it’s time to read a favourite book/go for a walk/bake some cookies…

Secondly, take steps to ensure you (and therefore your children) are accessing accurate and up-to-date information. The Ministry of Health website is updated regularly with the latest information. This is a great opportunity for our children to learn that not everything you hear in the media is true – another helpful conversation to have with our kids! Gently explain concepts like sensationalism and clickbait, and encourage your kids to think about real news and fake news, and wisdom versus over-reaction.

The American website for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, is another helpful source of up-to-date and accurate information.

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Provide Reassurance

Our goal here as parents is to reassure our kids – we want them to feel secure, while at the same time letting them know that the big people in their lives (parents, caregivers, teachers, doctors, politicians etc) take seriously their responsibility to keep everyone safe.

Asking ourselves questions such as, ‘What potential risks are there for our children?’ and ‘How can we help mitigate these?’ is helpful. We best communicate calm and reassurance by being calm ourselves, as our children will react to both what we say and how we say it. Kids take their cues from us. Our calm is infectious (in a good way!) – it communicates to our kids, ‘We’ve got this’.

We need to be honest with our kids and avoid making promises we can’t keep, eg ‘No one will get sick’. COVID-19 is a real concern and people are getting sick. There’s no sense in hiding this fact from our kids but at the same time, we need to help them understand that getting coronavirus is much like getting the flu and the world’s best doctors and scientist agree that people with youthful and healthy immune systems (eg most kids!) can handle the virus and will recover quickly. However, while healthy children may not be at great risk of adverse health outcomes from contact with COVID-19, they are not immune to fear. Our reassurance is key to their peace of mind.

What if someone in our family gets COVID-19?

It is really helpful to front-foot this scenario, even though the likelihood might be slim. For some children, what they imagine might happen if someone in their family got the virus may be a lot worse than the predicted reality. My 13-year-old was surprised to hear that COVID-19 was like the flu and said, “Oh, so just because you get the virus, it doesn’t mean you are going to die? I thought you died if you got it.”  How incredibly stressful for our kids if that is what they believe!

Having a conversation along these lines might be helpful:

“If someone in our family got the COVID-19 virus, it would be like getting the flu. They would need to rest in bed and we wouldn’t want to get too close to them – so no kisses and cuddles with them for a couple of weeks because we wouldn’t want anyone else in the family to get the virus. Remember when Dad got the flu last winter? He was really tired and slept in bed a lot, and he had a cough and a high temperature. With COVID-19, we would also need to take precautions so we didn’t give anyone else the virus, so our family would need to stay at home for a couple of weeks.”

Brainstorm with your kids a list of fun things you could do at home as a family. Isolation could actually have the potential to be a special time together (with the exception of the person recovering in bed!), providing a unique opportunity to build closer connections through games and projects around the home. Ideas could include planting a garden, learning an instrument, completing a large jigsaw puzzle as a family, reading aloud a series of books, watching movies… lots of movies!

Practise good hygiene

On a positive note, a global pandemic is a learning opportunity for our children. Terms like ‘germs’ and ‘bugs’ can seem a bit frightening to kids so it may help to provide some basic scientific context for what causes us to get sick. This, in turn, empowers us with helpful insights into how we can prevent getting sick and what we can all do to slow the spread of viruses. And if biology was not your strong suit at school and the basics of bugs are a little murky in your mind, Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka ‘Nanogirl’, has produced an excellent video that explains the facts in a fun and non-threatening way. Watch it with your kids and learn together – you can find the video here.

This is also, of course, a pertinent time to emphasise some important hygiene guidelines.

Here are some practical – and essential – habits to teach our children:

  • Hand-washing. COVID-19 is transmitted via close contact and surface contamination, hence good handwashing habits are so important. Frequent handwashing – for at least 20 seconds,
    with warm water and soap – is a key preventative measure. It can be tricky for young children
    to calculate 20 seconds’ worth of handwashing, so getting them to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while washing their hands is a helpful guide. You could also use an ink stamp on your child’s
    hand and challenge them to wash it off each time they wash their hands.Teach your kids the
    5 steps of hand-washing:  wet, lather (make bubbles), scrub (rub together), rinse & dry.
    Remind your kids to wash their hands after sneezing and coughing and before eating or touching their face. Drying hands thoroughly is also really important, as bacteria grows at a faster rate in damp or moist places.
  • Sneezing and coughing etiquette. Training our children to cough and sneeze into their elbow is a great practice, particularly in the absence of tissues. Tissues can be another factor to manage, especially ensuring all used tissues go into the bin straight away and hand-washing follows.
  • About face. Teach your kids to avoid touching their face as much as possible – it’s important we keep our hands out of our mouth, nose and eyes, as this will help keep germs out of our bodies.
  • Keep a friendly distance. Encourage your kids to come up with creative ways for greeting their friends and family – particularly girls, who may be more likely to hug each other. Elbow taps, foot taps, knee taps, hip taps or a creative sequence of all of the above are fun ways to say ‘Hi’, in the absence of a hug and a kiss!
  • Stay home if sick. If anyone is feeling unwell, they are best to rest at home so as to avoid the possibility of spreading any germs. While missing out on events and activities is disappointing, reassure your kids that cancellations and isolation are preventative measures. Missing out on something fun is hard for us as individuals, but better for everyone in our community.

Maintain a normal routine

As much as possible, try and keep to your regular schedule. Maintaining a sense of routine can be really helpful in reassuring our kids in an uncertain season. Encouraging our children to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities is also helpful while ensuring you are tuned into how your children are coping. We want to avoid pushing them if they seem overwhelmed.

In summary, the key to coping with COVID-19 could be as simple as keeping calm and washing our hands. Which is precisely what our kids need in this crazy season – gentle reassurance and healthy hand-washing habits! Plus lots of love and parental connection – even if that is in the form of elbow taps!