Talking to Kids about COVID-19 (and other tough topics)

An educator I highly respect reached out to me yesterday with this question: what is the best way to talk to kids about the fact that they will not be returning to school this year? Not surprisingly, I get similar questions about talking to children about difficult topics from parents and teachers frequently. How to talk to kids about divorce, death, a serious medical condition, where babies come from, and parental job loss are a few topics that come to mind. In each of these, and in the case of COVID-19, there are four really important guidelines that I recommend that you follow:

  • Be truthful.
  • Be measured.
  • Be empathic.
  • Be empowering.

Let’s take a look at each of those guidelines in a bit more detail.

Be truthful. Don’t lie to kids. They are way more perceptive than we often give them credit for, and those little people have very big ears. I once received a voice message from a mom telling me that she had cancer but hadn’t told her children yet. She told me she scheduled an appointment to see me alone later in the week so that she could get some advice about how to tell them. That very same day, her 8-year-old son sat down on my sofa, and within the first five minutes of the session, he said “I’m pretty sure Mom has cancer.” When I asked what made him think that, he explained that both his parents had been very cranky, his mother often looked like she’d been crying, and he had overheard her on the phone talking to someone about cancer. When I asked him if he had shared his suspicion with either of his parents, he said, “No, because I don’t want to upset them.” 

Besides the fact that kids have an amazing gift for finding information we’d prefer they not have, the truth almost always has to come out eventually. And when it does, children are none to happy to realize that you’ve previously lied to them or withheld important information. Plus, if you value honesty in your children, it’s important to model honesty.

Be measured. Children are very good at regulating the flow of information and will let you know, usually indirectly, when they’ve heard enough. For example, when a 5 year old asks where babies come from, she is probably not ready for a detailed explanation about sex. So it’s a good idea to give a vague answer and wait to see how the child responds. For example, you might say, Babies are made when a little bit of a women and a little bit of a man come together. For many young children, that amount of information will be enough for a while. They’ll let you know that you’ve given enough information by changing the subject or moving onto another activity. When they are ready for more, they’ll return with another question such as “So how does the little bit of the mommy and daddy get inside the mommy?” Again, be measured. Say something vague and wait to see if your child asks for more details.

Be empathic.  Kids are naturally pretty egocentric. This simply means that they mostly see the world through their own eyes and their own experience. Even teenagers, who have the cognitive capacity to consider the world from the perspective of others, are pretty self-focused. So when you have to talk to children about a difficult topic, it is wise to focus on how the topic at hand will affect them. For example, a lot of parents are having to talk to their children about unemployment during the pandemic. Don’t be surprised if the comments they make seem selfish. For example, a young child who hears that his father has lost his job may say things like “Does this mean I won’t get that videogame you promised me?” or a teen may ask “What about baseball camp? The money is due soon!”

Remember, being empathic means seeing things from another’s perspective and trying really hard to understand how that person is feeling. So, yes, when a parent loses a job, there are much bigger concerns than a promised videogame and camp fees. Try to put yourself in your child’s place, though. It is natural and normal for them to worry about how they will be affected. They’re not being selfish; they’re being kids! Also, it’s possible for kids to focus on their own immediate concerns AND be aware that a job loss has bigger implications for their parent and the family. For more on this, click here.

Be empowering. Just as kids are likely to focus on how the news you’re sharing will affect them, they also need to feel a sense that they can help or do something constructive. All of us adults can understand that feeling of needing to take action in the face of a challenging situation. So, for example, when you have to break it to a child that a beloved grandparent is dying, be ready with some ideas of things he can do to help. Things like pray that the death is peaceful (if you are a religious family), be patient during the visits to the hospital even though they are sad and boring, make colorful pictures to hang up in the hospital room, help out with tasks around the house to ease the burden on the grieving parent, etc. And then have low expectations that the child will do most of them. Remember, that these tough times are tough on them as well.

So, what does all this have to do with the current public health crisis? Putting it all together, here is an example of a truthful, measured, empathic, and empowering way to talk to kids about COVID-19:

I know you know that there’s this very bad germ that is making lots of people all over the world sick. It’s called COVID-19 or the coronavirus. It’s a virus just like a cold or the flu. It makes some people very, very sick. Some even die. Most people who get it, though, have pretty mild cases kind of like a cold or the flu. Some people have it and don’t even feel sick at all. Unfortunately, those people don’t even know that they have it but can still spread it. You know how I keep you home from school when you’re sick so that other kids don’t get the germs? Well, that’s kind of what everybody is doing right now. We’re staying away from other people so that just in case we have the coronavirus, we don’t spread it around. Any questions about all that? (Here, you answer the questions in an honest, measured way.)

Well, the good news is that everyone staying home is working. Fewer and fewer people are getting sick. The sad news, though, is that we have to keep doing what we’re doing for longer than we first thought. That means no school for the rest of this school year. It also means no playdates for a while longer. We aren’t sure about camp and summer vacations yet but we’re hopeful. I know this is really, really hard for you and that you miss your friends and your teachers. What else are you feeling? (Here, you practice empathic listening and really try to understand this experience through your child’s perspective. You can find a discussion about the do’s and don’ts of good listening here for parents of teens and here for parents of younger children.)

There a lots of things we can all do to make this tough time a little easier. Do you have any ideas? (Here, you praise their ideas generously, even if they aren’t so great. It’s an opportunity to inject some positivity into the moment.) Here are some things I can think of: Facetiming with your grandparents and friends and making cards to send to all of the people we miss. Hey, maybe we could learn something fun from watching Youtube videos, like how to play the piano or knit or make bagels from scratch.  What ideas do you like? What other ideas do you have? (Here, you listen some more and praise some more.) And, we’re already doing the very most important thing we can do which is to stay at home until the scientists who really understand this virus tell us it’s safe to gather with the people that we miss. I don’t know when that will be, but I know that it will happen.

This example is targeted for young kids up to about 8 or 9. You will need to adjust your language if your children are older.

This is tough, moms and dads, and we really are all in it together. If you’re struggling with  how to talk to your kids, I encourage you to read the posts that are linked above as well. Even if you do a bang-up job of talking to your kids about the pandemic, they will still think it sucks. Because, you know, it does. Be gentle with yourselves as well as with your kids. Create lots of time and space for connection, for talking about COVID-19, and for talking about anything but the virus. This will not be a one-and-done conversation. Follow your children’s leads and meet them where they are at any given moment.  I’m confident the four guidelines above will help with those tough conversations ahead.

 

[Names and  potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

 

 

 

 

 

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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