Even at young ages, children are acutely aware of illness and death, and they are sensitive to stress in the family. Children will have almost certainly heard about the COVID-19 pandemic, so the first important thing for parents to do is to listen. Parents should listen openly and allow children to talk freely, without too many guiding questions. Parents can ask open-ended questions and try to find out how much their children already know about the pandemic, and to assess any conclusions they’ve drawn about the implications of the pandemic for their safety and the safety of their families.
Next, parents should answer their questions as honestly as they’re able. Of course, parents must consider their children’s age and the types of difficult conversations they’ve had in the past so that the discussion can be properly scaffolded, but (age-appropriate) honesty and openness are usually the best strategy for any child.
During these conversations, it’s important for parents to know that it’s okay not to have all of the answers. Children will experience stress, conflict, and difficulties throughout their lives. It’s a parent’s job to help children through these experiences, not to try to ensure they won’t occur.
Most important is that parents are clear about the support the child has during these uncertain times. Children, like many of us, will be feeling scared or confused. Parents should create space for children to share these feelings and can also express how they’re feeling as well. It’s always good to label how we’re feeling and how our children might be feeling, and to help children connect those feelings with their potential causes. This helps kids develop emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize feelings and situations which may cause them. Parents may want to talk about things they do when they feel scared or angry, and they can also help their children come up with ideas of strategies they can try.
During these conversations, it can be good for parents to highlight all of the things our communities are doing to help keep people safe. That we all wear masks because we’re in this together, and that everyone is working to make things better. Parents can focus on stories of people who are working to stop the spread of the virus or who are caring for those who are sick. Finally, parents should emphasize that this is temporary, and that the child’s family will always be there to support and care for them. It’s nearly impossible to give too many hugs or to say “I love you” too many times (unless you’re asking a teenager, of course!).