How to talk with our kids about COVID-19

BAR HARBOR – No school for a month would be happy news for most kids under normal circumstances, but the recent announcement that school will be out until the end of April brings more questions than answers for many children.  

So, how do we talk with them about COVID-19? 

“They are doing a lot better than a lot of the adults are with this,” said Dawn Nuding, a licensed clinical professional counselor who is part of The Counseling Collaborative. “In general, they are really resilient.” 

For a lot of the people Nuding and other area counselors are working with, grief seems to be a prominent emotion at this time regarding social isolation, loss of routine and changes in the way we are used to doing things.  

“We are faced with some impossible tasks, not the least of which is to provide some sense of normality for our kids as their world continues to shift,” wrote Mount Desert Elementary School Counselor Tara McKernan in a letter sent out to parents.  

“One thing that I’ve been trying to talk a lot about is to be okay with things not being perfect,because that’s not possible,” said McKernan, who is also  a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at The Counseling Collaborative, in an interview with the Islander.

Most importantly, when talking about COVID-19 with children, start by asking what they know about it, said Jennifer Morgan-Binns, a licensed clinical social worker. If possible, do so with a question that invites more than a yes or no answer in order to understand what information they have collected. Once they offer an answer, ask how they are feeling about the coronavirus.   

“Sometimes for young kids it’s good to draw,” said Morgan-Binns, who also suggests role playing with toys for the younger age group.  

“Adults should talk in their language so they can understand it,” said Michael Curless, a child psychologist who has an independent practice. “For younger kids, a virus is like mud. When you get it on your hands and touch this or that it gets all over things.” 

Most tweens and teenagers are getting information about coronavirus from friends and adults and through the media. Curless suggests talking directly with them about it to offer factual information and honesty around an uncertain future.  

“Older kids need comfort,” said Morgan-Binns. “They have a grief process they’re experiencing because they miss their friends.” 

And, according to McKernan and Nudingall of the feelings around what is happening are legitimate and need space to be felt.  

“It’s okay to feel really sad about it,” said McKernan. “As adults we don’t need to come in and fix it. Let people feel the feelings they’re having.” 

It is important to check in regularly to see how children are adjusting to changes.  

“Right now, everything is going to feel weird,” said Nuding, adding that a whole bunch of emotions may be going on for children, including happy to be out of school, upset that competitions are cancelled and sad about a loss of social connection. 

“This is completely unnatural to our species,” said Morgan-Binns. “We have to be social. We are hard-wired for connectivity.”  

As adults there is a need to connect to other parents in the community so it doesn’t feel like parenting in isolation, but also to be able to process their feelings with other adults, Morgan-Binns explained.  

“Parents need to understand the kids are going to react in large part by how they’re acting,” said Curless. “This could go on for awhile. It’s not just a snow day or long weekend. This could be a lifestyle.” 

If so, that could mean more connecting via video chats and online formats. Most adults will admit, this is an area where children tend to have the upper hand.  

“Let’s go ahead and follow their lead a little bit,” said McKernan. “They’re kind of digital experts more than the rest of us are.” 

Encourage creativity in ways of connecting with others and allowing children to play to their strengths. According to Nuding, parents are the experts on their children and need to rely on that understanding when it comes to speaking with them about COVID19 and figuring out how to get their emotional, academic and physical needs met. For some that could be more of a challenge than for others. 

“Kids are resilient but anxious kids are less resilient and with them, this is going to stir the pot and make them more anxious,” said Curless, who, along with the other counselors, wants people to know help is available. “Parents may not realize that we’re all still working, just via phone or computer.” 

Importantly, school systems are working to keep services available for those who need them. 

“This is our job,” said McKernan. “We’ll make sure everyone is taken care of. 

“Time is moving so strangely right now,” she added. “It can feel like, why isn’t this all figured out yet?” 

Find out what your child already knows 

Ask questions geared to your child’s age level. For older kids, you might ask, “Are people in school talking about coronavirus? What are they saying?” For younger children, you could say, “Have you heard grownups talking about a new sickness that’s going around?” This gives you a chance to learn how much kids know — and to find out if they’re hearing the wrong information. 

Follow your child’s lead. Some kids may want to spend time talking. But if your kids don’t seem interested or don’t ask a lot of questions, that’s OK. 

Offer comfort — and honesty 

Focus on helping your child feel safe, but be truthful. Don’t offer more detail than your child is interested in. For example, if kids ask about school closings, address their questions. But if the topic doesn’t come up, there’s no need to raise it unless it happens. 

If your child asks about something and you don’t know the answer, say so. Use the question as a chance to find out together. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for up-to-date, reliable information about coronavirus (COVID-19). That way, you have the facts and kids don’t see headlines about deaths and other scary information. 

Speak calmly and reassuringly. Explain that most people who get sick feel like they have a cold or the flu. Kids pick up on it when parents worry. So when you talk about coronavirus and the news, use a calm voice and try not to seem upset. 

Give kids space to share their fears. It’s natural for kids to worry, “Could I be next? Could that happen to me?” Let your child know that kids don’t seem to get as sick as adults. Let them know they can always come to you for answers or to talk about what scares them. 

Know when they need guidance. Be aware of how your kids get news and information, especially older kids who go online. Point them to age-appropriate content so they don’t end up finding news shows or outlets that scare them or have incorrect information. 


Help kids feel in control 

Give your child specific things they can do to feel in control. Teach kids that getting lots of sleep and washing their hands well and often can help them stay strong and well. Explain that regular hand washing also helps stop viruses from spreading to others. Be a good role model and let your kids see you washing your hands often! 

Talk about all the things that are happening to keep people safe and healthy. Young kids might be reassured to know that hospitals and doctors are prepared to treat people who get sick. Older kids might be comforted to know that scientists are working to develop a vaccine. These talks also prepare kids for changes in their normal routine if schools or childcare centers close in the future. 

Put news stories in context. If they ask, explain that death from the virus is still rare, despite what they might hear. Watch the news with your kids so you can filter what they hear. 

Kids and teens often worry more about family and friends than themselves. For example, if kids hear that older people are more likely to be seriously ill, they might worry about their grandparents. Letting them call or Skype with older relatives can help them feel reassured about loved ones. 

Let your kids know that it’s normal to feel stressed out at times. Everyone does. Recognizing these feelings and knowing that stressful times pass and life gets back to normal can help children build resilience. 

Keep the conversation going 

Keep checking in with your child. Use talking about coronavirus as a way to help kids learn about their bodies, like how the immune system fights off disease. 

Talk about current events with your kids often. It’s important to help them think through stories they hear about. Ask questions: What do you think about these events? How do you think these things happen? Such questions also encourage conversation about non-news topics. 

Reviewed by Jennifer Shroff Pendley, PhD. 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.