COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Tips for health-care workers: Talking to your kids about COVID-19

dad talking to child

There’s no doubt that our children, no matter what age, are experiencing a new flow to their lives. Schools remain closed. Playgrounds are taped off. They aren’t visiting with friends or extended family, or attending soccer, dance or activities, except perhaps virtually.

If old enough (and even if still young) they’re hearing conversations and seeing information about COVID-19. Many parents wonder how to help their children make sense of this new reality we’re living in.

For children of hospital workers, this new reality might include new worries or fear about mom or dad going to work.

If you work in a hospital or health-care setting in any way, here are some tips for navigating with your children during this challenging time:

Make time to talk

Make time to talk with your kids and to answer their questions with gentle honesty and accuracy in a calm and reassuring manner. Children are very astute; even little ones know that their world is different right now. It’s important not to pretend that nothing is going on. Their anxiety can increase if they feel you’re not being truthful with them since they may imagine things worse than their reality. We can start by asking them what they know so far.

Find out what they know and learn more together

For children who have access to the Internet or friends, it’s important to make sure that the information they’re getting is accurate. When it’s not, take some time to go through it together and demystify any incorrect information, clarify and provide correct information using correct terms and language. Parents can look up information on trusted sites together with their children and talk about what they find. Encourage your children to ask questions or share their worries and reassure them that you’re doing everything you can to help them, the family and their community get through this challenging time.

Acknowledge their anxiety

It’s important to acknowledge and normalize the anxiety. For children old enough to know the risks of working at a hospital, reassure them that you are doing everything at work to keep yourself safe and healthy and to keep them safe and healthy when you come home. You wear a mask, or physically distance from others at work, and clean your hands a lot. You change out of your scrubs at work and put them straight into the wash when you get home. You shower before you see the family upon your return home from work. All of these actions are done to keep you and them safe.

A new routine takes time

Having a routine is always helpful. Staying away from school and activities is a new routine for the family, so it will take time to feel natural. Including your children in deciding what this new routine will look like can be helpful. Part of the routine can be “fun time”, whatever that looks like for your family. A dance party. A family bike ride. Arts or crafts. Making children a part of figuring out the new flow helps to give them a sense of control and purpose, something all of us, at any age find comforting.

Explaining isolation

Some front-line workers may choose to live apart from their family at this time. If you are making this choice, start by asking children what questions they have about you isolating. That will give you a starting point about what is worrying them the most. Once you answer the questions as honestly and calmly as possible, acknowledge that you know how hard this is for them and for you. Make a plan for how you will stay connected over the phone or FaceTime. Make a plan with them about how you are going to celebrate when you no longer have to isolate. Again, making them part of the plan on how the family is going to cope while you isolate and what they can do to help, will give control and purpose.

Just like adults, children feel anxious when their world seems out of sync and out of control. We can help them to focus on what is in their control right now i.e. staying connected with family and friends through technology, learning how to properly wash their hands, sneezing and coughing into a tissue or sleeve and keeping a distance from others if going out for a brief walk with the family.

Continue to check in with your kids as the pandemic continues on. Let them know how proud you are of them being able to help and contribute at such a challenging time for the family.

As parents we all want to protect our children and it’s so difficult when we know that it isn’t always possible. Andrea Warnick, an expert in childhood grief, often quotes Dr. Wendy Harpham:

“The greatest gift you can give your children is not protection from change, loss, pain or stress, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer them.”

About the author

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Dr. Dori Seccareccia

Dr. Seccareccia is a psychosocial therapist and physician in the Odette Cancer Centre’s Patient and Family Support Program.