Talking to kids about Covid-19

Hats off to parents trying to juggle this Coronavirus crisis with their families. Explaining changes in routine, the social distancing, the necessary introduction of more than "that's yucky" to the conversation with kids must be a trying process. All while not freaking them out, mind you.

As the Government announces plans to start reopening schools, it's time to start preparing kids for not only returning to school, but to a very different school experience.1 To maintain trust and credibility with your kids, communication is key.2

Some kids will return to school feeling like they've just had a weird holiday, others may bring changes in personality, or extra worry to the classroom. Most will return with their parents’ or caregivers’ view of what's going on.

According to the experts, keeping to a routine can be helpful for kids.3 Not just in terms of timeframes and chores, but contacting friends and loved ones, celebrating wins and commiserating losses. Keeping routine will not only provide a sense of security, and prove that consistency is still a thing, it will make returning to school less of an adjustment.

So how do we discuss all these changes with people who just want a hug from Nan, or to go hang with mates at the skate park?

The common trends throughout the plentiful advice out there are:

Stay calm - young minds look for security and guidance from adults. Whether they like it or not, kids take their cues from grown up people who have experienced more. They will take on an adult’s view on life until they can develop their own, so if a child hears their parents panicking about the Coronavirus, or complaining about restricted rights, the child will often adopt the anxiety and resentment.4

Let them lead the discussion - ask open-ended questions. This way you can find out what they already understand and discover if they’re anxious about anything that's going on once they've laid it all out. Discuss their concerns. Some may be an easy fix. Don't overload them with information they haven't asked about.5

Acknowledge stress - let them know it's okay be stressed, but also let them know that you're available to help them manage it. Controlled stress builds resilience.6 The Mental Health Foundation in the UK has sage advice on this that’s worth quoting in full:

"Explain to your children what it means to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not weakness; it is a natural response to experiencing uncertainty and risk and being emotionally exposed." 6

Provide reassurance and a sense of safety - this will take some homework on your part. 

  • Give correct and factual information that will reassure them and invite them to keep discussion open. They can't do that if you’re giving iffy answers.
  • Be a role model, practice what you preach.5
  • Discuss the safety measures being taken at schools for their return, and why these measures are important.7
  • Provide age-appropriate facts as best you can and teach them the 'why'. There are some good videos available that give kids a better idea of how germs spread.8

Give a sense of control - this is especially important with teens.9 We can feel quite helpless in a situation like this, more so for a child who knows 'the world ain't right'. Just as we do, kids need to feel like they are being part of the solution, that all this is for a reason.

  • Be honest and discuss the reasons why routines have changed.
  • Highlight the importance of looking after others, from avoiding transmission to vulnerable grandparents and looking out for friends who might not be coping so well.
  • Give them a sense of shared responsibility and purpose.10

Stay connected with others - friendships and relationships are important to self-esteem.11 Kids need their friends. They need to know everyone is safe and well. They need to know that we're all going through a similar thing. Make sure they stay connected to their social world to discuss what they have learned with their mates, to share their sacrifices, blow off steam, or just do silly dances for one another.

  • If you’re close to your neighbours, organise end-of-driveway gatherings so they can get their dose of socialising in the flesh.
  • Contact grandparents and loved ones on screen for visual reassurance.
  • With restrictions beginning to ease, take advantage of that sensibly.

Make the new rules fun and important - from singing happy birthday for the duration of hand washing, to hiding the Sneeze Monster in the crook of an elbow, kids learn quicker when it's fun.4  They also learn when they feel proud to be achieving a result.9  Explain why they are important to the process and acknowledge their 'sacrifices' to get it done.

Teach social distancing - so many kids have zero personal space, thinking nothing of showing their gratitude for that cream bun by hugging that jam-covered chin into your shirt. It can be difficult at times to avoid touching. Many of us need to relearn our entire behaviour around this.

  • Teach alternatives to contact greetings. Instead of a high five, maybe a wave and a smile?
  • Make a game out of not touching our face by inventing a funny code word if you see someone touching their faces. For these games to work, you have to be present to make them achievable.
  • Look up how your school will be managing social distancing on return so you can start preparing the kids for what to expect.

Find ways to continue achieving. Peoplecare relocated three full offices into home offices over just10 days. Anything is achievable. Kids can continue their hobbies, sports, interests, and passions, we just need to put in the effort to find an appropriate and safe way to go about it. Help them find the solutions rather than leave them to it.12

It's a time of uncertainty and the best we can do is be prepared. Be open with your kids. Look up the answers together. Speak in facts, albeit gentle facts depending on the child, provide security and reassurance, and show them that we can continue living our lives with a few adjustments. Kids adapt to change and loss, and we can make sure they know we're here to listen. These suggestions will not always be realistic, but they're worth a try in this big experiment.

Our hearts go out to those who have been affected by this virus and its wider social impacts.

  1. The Guardian
  2. Early Childhood Australia
  3. The Conversation
  4. ABC News
  5. Kids Health
  6. Mental Health Foundation
  7. Education NSW
  8. ABC News (US)
  9. Harvard Health
  10. National Association of School Psychologists
  11. The Guardian
  12. SBS News
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