Adults and kids alike are hearing a lot about COVID-19 these days, and there may be lots of family conversations filled with questions and concerns about the illness.
Dr. Rachel Mitchell, child and youth psychiatrist, shares some important advice to help parents talk to children and teens about COVID-19
Be calm when addressing kids’ concerns
Dr. Mitchell says it’s important for parents to manage their own feelings of anxiety when speaking to children.
“When parents are calm, kids are more likely to be calm. Children often model their parents’ behaviour,” explains Dr. Mitchell. “This doesn’t mean parents can’t show any anxiety. Just speak calmly and openly with children. It’s a good opportunity to show kids resilience and that we can all cope with worry, which is a natural response to this kind of situation.”
Be prepared and be honest
Dr. Mitchell adds that communicating truthful information with children is very important and can be more reassuring than holding back.
“Be honest in your conversations. If you try to hold back from children and teens, they’ll probably be aware of that,” says Dr. Mitchell. “It’s instinctive for parents to want to protect their kids, but children are quite astute and they can sense if the full story isn’t being shared. It can be harder for them to manage the uncertainty or the unknown.
“Know the facts,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Also, meet children or teens at their level. This means using age-appropriate language, and for younger children, give concrete information rather than abstract explanations that may be difficult for little ones to understand.”
For teens she suggests speaking with them like an adult. Often, youth and adolescents have already seen or heard the most recent headlines and have a good understanding of an issue.
As well, be prepared for the conversation to come up again and sometimes unexpectedly. “Having one discussion doesn’t mean the topic won’t come up again,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Children will likely have more questions that they may ask at seemingly random times.”
Listen to what the child is asking
A key tip is to listen to what a child is asking about COVID-19, and answer those specific questions.
“Let the child lead the conversation and really listen to what is being asked,” explains Dr. Mitchell. “Don’t give them more information than what they’re asking for. Providing more details than they need may overload them or frighten them. Tell them only what they are asking, truthfully, at their level.
Acknowledging children’s concerns and addressing their questions will also help them understand that their feelings are valid.
Signs a child may have more serious concerns
While most children are able to cope with some anxiety with the help and comfort of their parents, family members and friends, some children may be experiencing excessive distress and may need professional help. Signs to watch out for include:
- Not sleeping
- Not eating
- Not talking
- Not leaving their room or unable to function
- Needing constant reassurance
- Not being comforted by parents
If a child is displaying these signs, contact your paediatrician or family doctor.
Resilience in difficult times
Although this is an uncertain time, demonstrating to children that you’re there for them and that there is support can help reassure them, even if you don’t have all the answers.
Parents can help empower children by sharing information about how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, tips for hand washing or how COVID-19 is spread.
Letting children know that experts and officials are working together to come up with a solution can also help to reassure kids during COVID-19.
It’s a complex and challenging topic. When parents manage their anxiety, are honest and share facts in family conversations, this can help ease the anxiety of children and teens, and in an uncertain time, can help them feel hopeful and supported.