Tips for Talking with Young Children about the Coronavirus Pandemic

father talks with son

Families want to talk with their young children about the coronavirus pandemic in a way that will support coping and promote resilience. Here are some ways to discuss these uncertain times with your 4-6-year-old to help them feel secure.

“Do you know about the coronavirus?”

Start by finding out what the children already know by asking them directly. This discussion, with the people children trust and depend on, is key. When children don’t understand a phenomenon, their imagination takes over and misunderstandings abound.

Tell the truth and keep it simple.

Calmly answer just the questions that the children pose. Explain that the virus is a tiny germ that gets inside the body and makes people sick. Viruses can be transmitted when people nearby cough or sneeze. A virus that lands on the hands can move into the body if people touch their eyes, nose or mouth. Children at this age have a limited ability to understand the mechanism of disease causation, but they can understand the association between the virus and illness. Let them know that there are lots of health care professionals ready to help people who do get sick. This conversation may need to be revisited as additional questions arise.

“What is the family doing to stay healthy?”

Letting the children know what the family is doing and what they can do to protect health can be reassuring. Explain that when they wash their hands frequently, cough into their elbows or a tissue, don’t touch their face, wipe down their devices, participate in meal preparation, get enough sleep or maintain appropriate physical distance, they are helping to keep themselves healthy. They might notice people wearing masks to keep their germs away from others. When children have a sense of control, they experience less anxiety.

“Why can’t I see my friends?”

The disruption in routines and the absence of important community members is distressing to children. While no one likes to hear children whine and complain, this is a reflection of their positive engagement with their world. Encourage their self-expression. Listen to what they are missing and brainstorm alternatives. Maybe they can have a video chat or a phone call or send a drawing to someone they can’t see in person. They might be able to look at photographs of the person in a family album. While they can’t go to the pizza shop, perhaps pizza can be made at home. Planting some fast growing seeds or having an indoor dance party might be entertaining diversions.

“This is a lot of family time!”

Children benefit from some structure and routine. Make a schedule at home, using pictures for the younger children, so that they know which activities are going to happen throughout the day. Parents need time, too, for work and play. Children are very sensitive to adults’ moods, so taking time for self-care benefits everyone. Screens are really helpful for times when adults need a break.

“When is this going to be over?”

It is difficult to address this question with children when the answer isn’t known. Young children don’t have a well-developed sense of time, so next week or next month are hard concepts for them to understand. They can be reassured that there are lots of helpers around the world who are working hard to find a treatment for coronavirus disease.

Providing information, facilitating the expression of feelings, and proposing empowering activities will help children cope with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

mother comforting child
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Susan E. Gottlieb, MD is a board-certified Developmental Pediatrician and Chief of Child Development at New York Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. Her special interests include language delay, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and sleep problems. She has written two books for parents: Keys to Children’s Sleep Disorders and Keys to Parenting your Three-Year-Old. Dr. Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected].

Patricia Weiner, MS is certified in Special Education and Early Childhood Education. She is the Founding Director of the Child Life Master’s Degree Program at Bank Street College of Education in New York, NY. Her special interests include child life, children with heath care issues and advocacy for families with children with brain and spinal cord tumors. She has written a book for parents: Taking Your Child to The Doctor or To the Hospital: Helpful suggestions and practical tips to make your child’s visit more comfortable. Patricia Weiner can be reached at [email protected].