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Talking to your children about the coronavirus

Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
08 April 2020

Even as adults, many of us are feeling worried, anxious and perhaps lonely during this uncertain time. Therefore, it’s understandable that some children may be feeling the same way. It can be hard for children to understand the situation, more so for younger children. And older children and teenagers may be experiencing anxiety or loneliness.

Above all, communication is key at this unusual and difficult time. Talking to your children, whatever their age, is vital to help them feel safe and secure and reduce any worry. Here, we offer some advice on how to communicate the topic and ease any anxious feelings.


How to communicate with your child about coronavirus

Each child is different. Some children may be relatively unaware or unphased by the current situation. Others will feel anxious, or their behaviour may change dramatically in response to feelings of worry. Some of the below may not apply to your child. But tailor the advice based on their age, as well as how they are affected by it.

  • Sit down with your child and establish what their understanding of the current situation is. It’s important that you provide clear information, and what the situation means for them and you all as a family.
  • Help your child understand what’s going on in the world and clear up any misunderstandings they may have.
  • Being open and honest (to a certain extent, depending on their age) will ultimately help your child to feel safe and secure.
  • Don’t offer more detail than what your child has asked for. For example, there’s no need for younger children to know that people may die from this virus. It’s better to say something like: “People may become very poorly with it, especially if they’re older. That’s why we can’t visit Granny.”
  • Explain to your children why some people are wearing masks and gloves, so it doesn’t alarm or worry them.
  • Having regular family meetings may be helpful. This will make sure everyone in the household is on the same page, and you can work together as a family unit throughout this time.
  • If you have a partner, speak to them and other adult family members about how you wish to communicate issues around the pandemic. This will help maintain a consistent message to your children.
  • Help your child to feel in control by asking them how they would like to be supported through this time, or what they would like to know. Their difficulties or worries may not all be specifically related to the pandemic.
  • If your child is struggling to speak about their thoughts and feelings, ask them to write them down instead. Or maybe they would rather tell someone else, like another family member. It may be easier to talk while you’re doing something, like painting or Lego, so they don’t feel ‘on the spot’.

Control media and conversation exposure

Be aware of what information your child sees or hears. It’s a good idea to catch up on the news away from your children. Hearing words like ‘death rate’, ‘hospital admission’ and ‘illness’ can cause anxiety.

Try not to talk about the situation too often with your children around. They will hear your phone conversations and may start reflecting your own anxieties if they pick up on them.

If you have older children who use a smartphone or computer, be aware how much they’re interacting on social media about the topic. Rectify anything that they see or hear that’s false, and consider tighter restrictions on devices during this time.

Try not to have conversations or watch media reports about the situation during the evening. This may help reduce any anxious thoughts your child may have when they go to bed.

Tips to reduce anxiety in children

If your child is feeling anxious or showing signs of anger, distress or frustration, there are some things you can do to help them. Tailor the below points to your child’s age or personality.

  • Try to keep your day as normal and as structured as possible. For example, get up and go to bed at usual times, eat healthy, regular meals and get some fresh air once a day.
  • By having clear plans, your child will know what’s expected of them each day, helping them remain focused and motivated. Create plans together with your child, offering them choice where possible.
  • Create a ‘self-sooth box’. This is a box made up of items your child enjoys playing with or doing, which they can be directed to when they’re distressed. Examples include colouring books, jigsaws, fidget toys or comforting toys.
  • Make a ‘worry jar’. Explain to your child that they can write down their worries (or you can do it for them) and it can go into the jar. Just knowing that their worry is contained in a jar can stop your child replaying it in their head.
  • Use ice and other sensory toys and objects. For example, get your child to hold a couple of ice cubes in their hands when they’re showing signs of distress or have worrying thoughts. Plastic (reusable) ice cubes may be better for smaller children, as they are less harsh on the skin. It will cause them to focus on the sensation of coldness rather than what’s on their mind. Playdoh, water play and sand work in the same way.
  • Support your child to keep in touch with friends and family. This will help them to feel connected to others outside of the family home. For older children, allow them to have some privacy and their own space to catch up with friends via video or phone calls.
  • Let your child know that you’re also missing your friends and family. This will help your child know that their feelings are normal and they’re not alone with this.

Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa

    • Guidance for parents and carers on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, 30 March 2020

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