How to talk to your kids about COVID-19: Considerations for health care providers

Talking to your kids about COVID-19

Talking with children about dangerous or scary situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for all parents.

These conversations can be particularly challenging if your work requires you to be exposed to individuals who are known to have the virus.

Mental health resources for kids and youth

Jack.org has developed a COVID-19 resource hub with School Mental Health Ontario and Kids Help Phone that includes education, tools, support and reliable information for youth. The CMA Foundation has donated funds to support their ongoing efforts.

If your child is scared about you going to work, should you tell them you will be fine so that they feel better?

No. It’s important to give children honest and accurate information. And, you should not promise your child something you cannot guarantee.

However, you can reassure them with confidence that they will always be taken care of. Here are some principles that can help:

Safety and control

Talk to your children about how you protect yourself from the virus. Make a list of all the things you do to enhance safety together. This includes hand washing, but also includes getting good sleep, eating well, talking and exercising. Practice these strategies together.

Accurate information

Answer your children’s questions truthfully about the dangers of COVID-19 ― but also talk about the positives like medical advances, evidence of recovery, etc. Only answer the questions they are asking. They will let you know if they need more information. Older children will have heard more from the media ― ask them to share what they’ve heard and correct any misunderstandings.

Connection

All children need to feel safe and secure. Talk about the adults in their lives who will take care of them while you are at work.

Talk about feelings

Create a safe space for children to express their feelings, whether it’s with you or another caregiver. Give them your full attention. Try not to minimize their feelings in an effort to reassure them. Instead, respect their feelings and help them to identify some active coping responses (e.g. “I know you will worry when I’m at work. What’s one thing that you can do when you are worrying a lot?”).

Focus on strengths

Are there times that your child has overcome a fear or anxiety in the past? Or, are there examples of other people you know coping well with adversity? Talk together about what lessons can be learned about successful coping.

Keep in mind:

  1. Their age: How you talk to children depends on their age. Older children typically need more details than younger children.
  2. Some kids are more vulnerable than others: Children who have experienced previous losses or separations may be more vulnerable to fear and might benefit from extra support.
  3. Kids are resilient: Research shows that the most common outcome of severe stress is recovery. Trust in children’s abilities to cope, learn and grow.

 

Manage your own fears and anxieties

Children look to their parents to understand how safe or dangerous a situation is. Be aware of your own emotions and what you are communicating to your children ― through your words ― but also your tone of voice and body language.

It’s okay for your children to see you having feelings like sadness or anxiety. This teaches them that it is okay to have feelings. It is important to talk about your feelings, and to reach out for support.

It’s ok if you feel too overwhelmed to have these conversations with your kids, but if that’s the case, is there someone else in your network who can help? These conversations can happen by phone or video calls. Although there is much in this situation that we do not have control over, focus on what you can control, like developing a plan to leave work safely.

It can also help to focus on the big picture. Are there cultural, religious or family beliefs that support your work and give meaning to your lives? Explore these for yourself and discuss them with your family ― a broader sense of purpose can sustain people through uncertainty.

 

Prepare your kids if you have to isolate yourself

When deciding whether or not to isolate yourself, consider your personal risk factors and your family members’ risk factors.

You will have to balance these risks against the challenges of not being with your family. In these extraordinary circumstances, there is no right answer.

Try to make the decision together with any other adult caregivers and older children.

Children thrive on routines and predictability ― especially younger children. If you will be separated from your children for an extended time, consider establishing a concrete plan to connect which you can commit to.

  1. Emphasize that this will be temporary. Although we don’t know when, this will end.
  2. Offer them choices, and together, plan how you will stay in contact. This will support your children’s sense of control as well as your emotional connection. For example:
    • By phone or videoconference, aim for regular contact and short periods of time (e.g. once a day for 5 – 10 minutes). Your children will benefit from having a concrete, predictable connection to you. This will reassure them that you are OK. If the scheduled contact is too long, you might not be able to meet your promise.   
    • When writing to them by email, text, or shared google doc, plan how you can exchange information about your day. Younger kids might need more structure, like agreeing that you each will share a) one thing you did that day and b) one thing you are looking forward to tomorrow. Try to avoid the internet, because media coverage typically does not cultivate a sense of calm and control.

 

This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about physician-led innovation? Please connect with us at jouleinquiries@cma.ca.

About the author

Dr. Catherine Costigan

Dr. Catherine Costigan is a clinical psychologist and a professor in the psychology department at the University of Victoria.

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