With schools now officially closed until further notice, and millions of children confined to their own homes, there’s no longer any chance of playing down the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.
So, what are the best ways to talk to the young people in your life about what’s happening, and give them the reassurance they need?
Here are a few tips from the experts on how to talk to children and adolescents about the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Don’t dismiss their fears
Psychologists may offer up differing views on the best things to say, but they are all in agreement that dismissing children’s fears is one of the worst things you can do.
It’s natural to want your child or grandchild not to worry, which means it can be tempting to dismiss their anxious questions with “it’s nothing to worry about”, or “everything will be fine.” But this will not put their fears to bed.
Not talking about something can actually make kids worry more as they may think the truth is being hidden from them. So, what can you say instead?
2. Ask them what they already know
Asking them what they already know is a good starting point for any conversation with children on a difficult topic.
You may want to swoop in and calm their fears about how ill they’re likely to feel if they catch coronavirus, but their worries could turn out to be something completely different. They may be anxious about your health, or whether there will be enough food to go around.
It may be something completely different, that no amount of adult guessing can predict. So, establish first what is preying on their minds, specifically. Asking them what they know also allows you to find out if they are hearing false information and gives you the opportunity to set them straight.
If they seem reluctant to talk, don’t push it. Take your lead from the child but let them know they can come to you. This way, they won’t be getting their facts from the wrong places when they do have questions.
3. Address their concerns in an age-appropriate way
How you frame the conversation will depend on the age and emotional readiness of the child you’re talking to. Don’t volunteer more information than they are asking for, or ready for, as you may overwhelm them. Instead, answer their questions honestly and clearly.
Try to strike a balance between being truthful and flaming their anxiety. A child’s imagination doesn’t need much encouragement to run wild and providing too much information can panic them.
If you have older children or teenagers who are accessing the news and social media, try to put news stories into context for them. Remind them that they will be seeing the worst-case outcomes because that’s what the news focuses on, but that, in reality, most people have no worse symptoms than a regular cold.
Younger children might be reassured to know that hospitals and doctors are all ready to help those people who feel really poorly, and older children might be comforted to learn that a vaccine will be on its way soon.
If children feel scared by seeing people in face masks, explain that those people are probably just being extra cautious but that the experts say they’re not necessary.
4. Give them a sense of control over the situation
Children feel comforted and empowered when they have a sense of control over a situation. So, focus on the things they can do to keep themselves safe.
Remind them of the importance of washing their hands and catching their coughs and sneezes in a tissue. Teach them about the importance of getting plenty of sleep and staying away from places where they could pass their bugs on.
Remind them too, that by looking after their own health, they’re helping others who might not be as well as them. And, that by washing their hands and staying away from their friends right now, they’re doing a really important job.
Knowing that people are grateful for the sacrifices they’re making will help them feel proud and encourage them to keep up the good work when they’re missing the things they enjoy.
5. Speak about the situation calmly
Children pick up on adult worry. Therefore, it’s important not to transfer your own fears to them where possible.
Don’t have a conversation with your children when you are feeling anxious. Take some time to calm down before answering their questions. And practise what you preach; limit how much news and gossip you digest if it’s making you feel anxious, and focus on the things you can do to keep yourself and those you love safe and well.
6. Keep talking
As the situation continues to evolve, it’s likely that young people will continue to have new questions and worries. Therefore, let them know they can talk to you about whatever is on their mind when they need to.
Be mindful, however, of the fact they need normality and routine too. Try to ensure that coronavirus is not the only topic of conversation in the house. Make space and time for activities that are fun and a distraction from the news. Give them the reassurance they need that although life has changed dramatically in recent weeks, there are some things that haven’t changed, like time for giggles and relaxation.
But, most of all, let them know that you are there, and they can come to you when they need comfort or answers.