COVID-19 (Coronavirus-19) now has spread across the world. This fast spread means information is also rapidly changing. Affected communities are going into isolation. Schools (including colleges) are closing, sports events are canceled, and other changes are happening at lightning speed.
So, how can parents help their children with Covid-19 going on? Below are suggestions for talking with younger and older children, as well as suggestions for parents.
What is COVID-19?
General: Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause a range of illnesses even the common cold. COVID-19 is a new form of coronavirus. It is a respiratory disease that spreads from person-to-person. At this time, there are no available vaccines or cures. Information is rapidly changing. To obtain the latest information on COVID-19, it is recommended that you visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). It is also recommended that you have a family discussion. First, you should ask what your children know about COVID-19. Then you should provide an age-appropriate response (please see below) and correct any misconceptions.
*Younger children: This is a virus like the kind that gives you a cold. So we have to be very careful about staying healthy by washing your hands, keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth, sneezing and coughing into your elbow, and staying away from others if they or you are sick so it doesn’t spread. You can still catch a cold now, which is not as big a problem for others, but you will want to be extra careful anyway.
*Older children: COVID-19 is serious because we don’t know much YET about this specific virus. We do know that the people with the most serious outcomes tend to be elderly or have a lot of other illnesses that affect how they fight the disease.
What can we do to prevent getting COVID 19?
General: The usual good hygiene practices are needed, including handwashing (20 seconds), sneezing and coughing into your elbow, keeping your hands away from your face, eating healthy food, and getting sleep. Rather than touching, other practices include smiling and making a hand gesture such as waving or even giving a peace sign, not sharing tools such as pencils or pens, and not touching surfaces in public such as doors without cleaning or using your sleeve or a tissue. Basic health supplies should be kept in the home such as soap, alcohol-based sanitizer, tissues, and a thermometer. There are specific terms now being used.
Social distancing is being used to keep from getting too close to others in order to minimize spread of the virus. Some examples of social distancing include not going into crowded situations, such as or sporting arenas, and leaving space between you and others in lines or on public transportation (6 feet).
Social isolation is staying at home if you think you have been exposed or are vulnerable. Many schools and businesses are encouraging this practice by allowing working from home, and shutting down schools. Some businesses such as grocery stores and large chain pharmacies are setting up or expanding home or delivery to your car services when you order online. Families can also try to go to the store at times that are the least crowded, like early in the morning or later at night.
In some circumstances, voluntary isolation is used. This is where people remain isolated in their homes or other settings because they may have been exposed to COVID-19. This isolation is for fourteen days from the last possible exposure.
Community spread is where a cluster” of people with the virus in a community has been documented. In some cases, community or special area isolation is being enforced by official government announcements and specific conditions, such as closing schools. Typically this is occurring where known cases have been spreading.
*Younger children: Explain the concepts of social distancing or voluntary isolation if schools or public events are closed. A simple explanation of keeping healthy and not spreading viruses should be helpful. Review the practices of preventing spread of disease.
*Older children: Help them understand the new terms and how these concepts specifically apply to them. For example, if a sporting event is canceled, explain why, and what will happen, such as rescheduling at a later date.
Even if your family is in isolation, remember that this is temporary, and do not underestimate your coping ability. You can reach out for support from others. It is human nature to come together in a crisis and to become even more resilient. Unhealthy/unhelpful thoughts can occur. To help think positively, you can refer to vetted sites such as https://childmind.org/article/how-to-change-negative-thinking-patterns/
Many kids are worried about older adults, like grandparents or other relatives and neighbors. It will help to keep in contact with these loved ones to check on them, and to reassure kids that everyone is learning how to stay safe. If an older person does get sick with the virus, medical help will be available and you will be able to know how they are doing.
Anxiety Control: Spread of COVID-19 is anxiety-provoking particularly for children who have a previous diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or have experienced a traumatic event. With so many questions and so few answers, worrying will happen. Your children will take their cues from YOU. If you are constantly checking the news for the latest information, they will sense your anxiety and may react by becoming more anxious. Clinging and whiny behavior, crying with little or no known cause, or sleeping/eating changes may indicate children’s anxiety. So, what can you do?
First, process your own fears and make sure that you are calmly interacting with your child. You can decrease fear by limiting both yours and your child’s media exposure. Stick with media sites known to be more factual (not those that make the news more dramatic), and with sites with fact-checked information. Here are some tips to help you manage your anxiety and put news reports in perspective:
https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/pandemics. This may also be helpful for you: COVID-19 Anxiety-which explains why we worry about new risks more than familiar ones, how to calm our anxiety, and what are the psychological effects of being quarantined.
Second, ask your child what they might be worried about. Reassure your child that you understand their concerns. Answer questions simply, with as little or much information as they seem to need. If you don’t know, say so, and tell them you will try to find the answers. Remember this is not a one-time conversation, rather, these questions will pop up as circumstances change.
Keep to a familiar routine as much as possible including bedtime. Structure is very helpful during stressful times! Check in via phone or video with those people your child may worry about, such as a college sibling, traveling parent, or elderly relatives or neighbors. Praise them for doing the actions that help prevent spread of the virus, such as hand-washing for two happy birthday songs.
Finally, take care of yourself. Your children will be watching you to see how you are faring. Use calming techniques such as positive statements (“it will be okay”), taking a few minutes to yourself just to breathe deeply, and demonstrating the behaviors that prevent spread including healthy eating and getting sleep.
Although voluntary or community isolation may not occur in your area, it helps to plan ahead.
If schools close, and parents need to work, think about who will take care of the children, and where this will occur. If a parent works from home, then the family will be together. However, many families have situations that don’t allow for a parent to be home, such as police, fire, or hospital staff. In this case, a “plan B” is necessary. Either an adult who can be a caretaker comes to the home, or the children go to a caretaker at their home during this time. Identifying these caretakers (who are known to be taking precautions with the virus) and the primary site for care is essential.
What can you do with the children when they are not in school? First, check with the school for recommended learning activities and opportunities to get breakfast and lunch if needed. Second, try to develop a schedule that involves a learning component for at least a few hours each day.
If there is a delay in the school directing your child’s learning at home, or your family has difficulty accessing school information, there are things you can do. For younger children, a parent or adult caretaker can encourage reading time and doing age appropriate learning activities to use the time productively. These activities do not need to be endless worksheets; rather, using activities such as cooking and crafts are natural ways to include math, social studies, and science. Encourage play as this is children’s natural medium for managing stress.
For older children, focusing on learning a project with a report (oral or written) may be a way to incorporate all subject areas. Time away from the internet or video games such as board or card games, going outside, and specified time with friends via social media can be helpful for kids who miss their friends and feel stress.
For all children, it will be helpful to get some exercise whenever possible which also helps with stress. Activities such as marching around the house, doing jumping jacks, or dancing can help, especially if going outside is not possible.
Parents may also need to help children with sadness or disappointment due to competitions, events, and vacations being canceled. To the best of your ability, develop a family plan for a replacement activity that can be done in the home and for when the vacation can be revisited.
Because this is a quickly changing situation, this is time to take a deep breath, use your sense of humor, and be flexible. Although we may not quite see it yet, there will be more answers and understanding to come.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
World Health Organization (WHO)
National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
American Academy of Pediatrics, Healthy Children
American Psychological Association (APA)
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
Fournier, C.J. and Burkhart, K. (March 13, 2020). COVID-19 and Parents: Talking with Your Children. https://infoaboutkids.org/blog/parents-and-covid-19-helping-your-children/