Be honest, be calm and don't be afraid to take things one day at a time

By Andrea Wurzburger
March 18, 2020 09:30 AM

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.

It’s hard enough to understand everything that is going on with the coronavirus pandemic as an adult, so what do you do when your child begins asking you questions about COVID-19? We spoke with Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, about how best to approach what can be a tough conversation with your kids.

Here are some of her expert tips for talking with your child:

How to Get the Conversation Started About Coronavirus

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“Many parents/caregivers are worried that talking to young children will lead to increased worries and anxieties,” Dr. Gurwitch explains. “The opposite is actually the case — bringing difficult topics into the conversation can actually help to quiet these worries.”

You’ll want to approach conversations with your kiddos in a way that is developmentally appropriate for them; that way you’re not overwhelming them with information that they can’t quite understand.

Start by asking them what they know about coronavirus, and then meet them where they are with facts and compassion. Remember, you set the tone when it comes to your kids: They’re going to mirror the way that you act, so try to keep calm and not panic.

Gurwitch offers up these conversation starters:

  • There has been a lot of talk about coronavirus. Tell me what you know about it, OR, Tell me what you’ve heard about it.
  • Tell me what your friends are saying about coronavirus.

This gives you a chance to listen to what your child knows and correct any misconceptions and misinformation.

Some websites are providing comics that can help your children better understand what COVID-19 is and how we can reduce our chances of getting ill or spreading the virus with hand-washing and social distancing. This one from NPR is great for older kids, while this one from Little Puddings is great for younger children.

What Are Some Developmentally Appropriate Ways to Discuss Coronavirus?

First of all, it’s important to validate your child’s feelings. Gurwitch says to ask yourself: “Has it ever worked for you when someone says, ‘Don’t feel that way?’ ”

“When a child/teen shares their feelings or thoughts, reflect their statements back to them,” Gurwitch advises. “This lets them know they are heard and assures that you understood them.” For example, if your child tells you that they are scared, you can say something like, “I know it is a little scary. Sometimes I get a little worried too, but here is how we are going to keep ourselves as healthy as we can so that we can be okay.”

When you do this, be sure that you are staying calm and providing a sense of ability to cope with the current situation. Providing your child with a sense of security, optimism and confidence will help your child feel the same.

Next, talk to your child about actions that are being done in your community, state and country. Make sure that you are keeping this language age-appropriate.

For young children, Gurwitch advises saying something along the lines of: “Everybody in (city, state) is working very hard to be sure we are as healthy as we can be. That is why we are staying home. When we stay home, it gives everybody a chance to be sure our schools/childcare settings can be cleaned. It also gives us time to be sure we are doing everything in our family to stay healthy.”

Then, tell your child what your family is going to do to stay healthy.

Tell your child that you are going to be washing your hands with soap and water (and maybe even singing while you do it), showing them how you will sanitize surfaces and keep the house clean to keep the family as healthy as possible. Here’s some language Dr. Gurwitch suggests:

“We can do lots of things to keep our family as healthy/well as possible. We need to wash our hands with soap and water to be sure we wash any germs away. When we wash our hands, we can sing ‘Happy Birthday’ two times. That will get rid of any germs. I will be sure to wipe things that can have germs, so we can be even more healthy. When we sneeze or cough, we cover our noses and mouth. We can also sneeze into our elbows.”

Make sure that you are encouraging your child as they use good hygiene and demonstrating these behaviors for your child.

Finally, encourage your child to ask questions.

Letting your child know that your initial conversation is not the last time you will be talking about COVID-19 and opening the floor to conversation down the line is essential as children try to wrap their head around the situation. Gurwitch suggests ending the conversation by saying, “If you have any questions about this virus or what we are doing, I am here to talk to you anytime you need me.”

How Do We Talk About People Who Get Sick and Do Not Recover?

“Discussing death with children is often frightening for adults as we may struggle with what to say,” Gurwitch acknowledges. But that does not mean that these conversations are not important. In fact, it is incredibly important that we do not shy away from these conversations.

Here’s an example of language you can use while talking to your child: “Even though doctors and nurses and everyone are working to keep us well, sometimes, sadly, it is not possible and people die. Together, we are doing all we can to keep ourselves well.”

Gurwitch stresses that you should “never promise children/teens that you or they will not get sick.”

“We cannot guarantee that we can keep this promise,” she explains. Adding, “When we make any promise that is broken, our children’s sense of trust in us is compromised, they are less likely to bring us concerns in the future and they are less likely to trust our responses.”

What Are Some Toddler-Friendly Ways to Explain Why We Can’t Go to a Public Park or to Play with Friends?

Gurwitch suggests being honest and telling your toddler that, because we need to make sure that we are healthy, we have to do some things that are not as much fun, like staying away from our friends. Instead you can:

  • FaceTime/Skype/WhatsApp family and friends for “playdates”
  • Give them the alternative of having plenty of fun with the family! Ask them what games they would like to play, what activities they find the most fun, and find some fun projects to do together.

How to Talk to Teens About Coronavirus

“If only we had a magic formula of how to speak with teens so they would always listen,” Gurwitch jokes.

Teens are very, very different from younger children in that they have access to information through their friends and social media, but similar in that you can approach them by asking what they already know and meeting them on their level. Additionally, Gurwitch says that “teens are developing a greater sense of independence; therefore, we need to respect that they have their own ideas and opinions.”

This does not mean that we should be letting teenagers engage in unhealthy behaviors, but it does mean having an open and honest conversation about how COVID-19 is affecting all of us. Explain to your teen that teenagers are low-risk for contracting the virus or may not show symptoms, but if they are out and about, the risk of returning home and passing this to loved ones who may not be as fortunate is greater than if they are responsible and follow recommended guidelines.

With a lot of teenagers facing sporting events, school musicals or plays, proms and more being canceled, there is bound to be a lot of disappointment and frustration. Some are facing very real disappointment that they haven’t had to work through before. Being unable to see their friends or go out to socialize is just the icing on top of the cake. Be honest with your teen about why they cannot go out and why it’s important not just for them, but for others, to stay home to stop the spread of the virus.

When your teen is helping out around the house, playing games with the family and using social media to stay in contact with their friends, be sure to let them know how much you appreciate their actions. Perhaps even reward them somehow!

A Few More Expert Tips:

  • Maintain routine as much as possible: This means bedtimes, mealtimes and behavior rules. Getting good rest and eating healthy is important for overall health.
    • Consider implementing designated family time for a family activity as part of your routine. Give each family member a turn to choose this activity.
  • Take a break: It is important to take a break from COVID-19 coverage and discussions. Do this by doing activities you usually do when you are stressed or anxious. Activities like meditating, watching a movie, reading a book, working on puzzles, art, journaling, gardening or listening to music are all great ways to take a break from the news.
  • Be a role model: Children look to you to determine how they should be coping. Being a good role model can reduce children’s worries. Be sure you have adults to talk to about your concerns (out of earshot of your child). If you need professional support for your distress, there are hotlines that are available 24/7.
  • When in doubt, approach things with a little extra patience, attention and love: These will go a long way to reduce your child’s distress. We can all benefit from these three qualities.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D is a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center.

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