There have been so many major changes to our lives since COVID-19 (coronavirus) emerged. Just like adults, children and teenagers have had their daily lives turned upside down. It’s quite normal for them to be feeling anxious, concerned or confused by current events.
It can be hard for very young children to understand why they can’t play with their friends, go to the park or see their grandparents.
Some children might not be worried at all, while others might be anxious about someone they love getting sick.
There are some simple, age-appropriate ways of explaining COVID-19 to kids and teens, and helping them deal with any anxiety they might have.
When and how to talk to children about COVID-19
According to Beyond Blue, young children might not understand specific information about COVID-19, but they will know something’s happened because so many routines have changed.
Beyond Blue suggests these four steps when talking to your children:
Start the conversation: Raise the topic with them. If parents don’t talk about something, children can assume that it must be really bad.
Pick your moment: Don’t take them aside and make a big deal out of it. Pick a time when the conversation is free-flowing, such as at the dinner table. Also, don’t raise it when you’re feeling especially anxious, as anxiety can be contagious.
Strike the right tone: Be matter-of-fact while also being warm and acknowledging that it can be a stressful time.
Encourage questions: Ask if there’s anything else they’d like to know. This will give you a chance to address any specific worries.
Make the most of family time together
Many of us are working from home during the outbreak, and some kids are home from school. This is a perfect opportunity to spend more time with your kids, build relationships with them and help them feel safer and happier.
Raising Children Network suggests making the most of the time you spend together by giving your children positive attention: lots of eye contact, praise and affection, and interest in what they’ve achieved each day.
There are lots of things you can do together as a family even if you can’t leave the house: play games, read books, draw together, have a picnic, have an indoor dance party, or go for walks.
If you have more than one child, try to plan some one-on-one time with each of them during the day.
Remember that all children – and adults – benefit from following routines.
How to talk to children of different ages
Early Childhood Australia has some good guidelines about talking to kids at different ages.
For kids aged under two, simple reminders to wash their hands are all that’s needed. Sing songs and play games, and try to remain calm. You calm tone will reassure your child and make them feel safe.
Toddlers aged two to three may notice changes such as parents working from home, and supermarket shelves being empty. Noticing such big changes can make them feel more anxious or clingy.
Remember if you’re stressed, your children are likely to pick up on it, so that might also make them more clingy than normal, Early Childhood Australia says.
Help them understand the importance of handwashing by explaining that germs are so tiny we can’t see them, but they can make us sick. That’s why we need to be extra careful about washing our hands before we eat or play.
Preschoolers aged four to six are naturally curious, and might ask why people are wearing masks at the shop, or why you’re working from home.
For kids this age, you can give them more detailed information and explain that the virus is so tiny, we need a microscope to see it.
You could explain that there are illnesses around that can make older people very sick, and that’s why they can’t visit their grandparents at the moment, but they can still talk to them over the phone or with a video call.
You could even explain how the COVID-19 virus is also called the coronavirus because it looks like a crown under the microscope.
Primary school children
Primary school children may have had their whole school routine interrupted. They may be missing friends and their daily routine.
Children of this age pick up news and conversations around them, and are likely to be very aware of the COVID-19 outbreak, even if you don’t talk about it directly.
Reassure kids that it’s ok to be worried – adults worry too. It can feel scary, but scientists all over the world are working hard to find a cure. If anyone we know gets sick, they will be taken care of in hospital.
If they’re exposed to any media, watch with them and talk to them about it.
The ABC’s Behind the News has good videos answering some common questions about COVID-19.
Raising Children has some tips for talking to children about physical distancing and self-isolation.
Teens might have a lot of extra-curricular and social activities that have been cancelled, such as sport, parties and school formals.
They could be anxious if they’re still working part-time or going to school. They might even be a bit relieved that school and exams are postponed for a while.
With more access to the internet and social media, teenagers run the risk of getting overwhelmed by news – just like adults.
They have probably seen footage of hospitals in countries that have been badly hit by the virus, or images of mass graves. Unlike adults though, teenagers might not be able to process the information.
Beyond Blue suggests telling teenagers that each country has been affected differently. Remind them that Australia has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and that experts here are learning about how best to manage the virus after seeing what’s happened in other countries.
Try sticking with the same message every time you talk to teenagers, rather than telling them about every latest development. By being consistent and repetitive, you’ll protect them from feeling uncertain, stressed or overwhelmed.
Try to stay positive and explain the facts – for example, you can do things together that you didn’t have time to do in the past.
Explain that while physical distancing and isolation are hard, the situation definitely won’t last forever.
Raising Children has some tips for talking to your teenagers if they’re worried or disappointed about having to stay home all the time.
Get support and connection
Beyond Blue now offers a coronavirus support service. This free service is available 24/7 and offers evidence-based information, advice and support for anyone with mental health and wellbeing challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.