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Coronavirus and Kids: How to Talk to Your Children About Scary News

A woman and a young boy looking at each other.

It’s hard to shield your kids from world news—especially the scarier stuff everyone’s talking about! Here are some age-specific tips to help alleviate (or at least reduce) some of your child’s panic and worry.

First and foremost, it’s important not to disregard your child’s concerns. Even if you think an issue has been blown out of proportion, the truth is that kids can easily imagine the worst-case-scenario. Not addressing your child’s fears will most likely cause him to worry more.

Although it’s good to talk openly about your child’s fears, avoid sharing everything you know about the current issue. There’s no point in overwhelming him with endless facts and statistics. Simply let him know you’re available to talk and answer his questions.

Lastly, don’t assume just because your child isn’t talking about the coronavirus (or whatever big news story is hitting the headlines) that she’s not stressing about it. Look for other signs, such as your child complaining about a lack of sleep, a stomach ache, or begging to stay home from school. These are clues your child might be harboring anxiety, but is too worried to talk about it.

Preschool Children

If your child is totally clueless about what’s going on, great! There’s no need to bring her up to speed on current world affairs—especially the stuff that’s a bit frightening.

Try to avoid watching the news while your children are present. Furthermore, save all “scary news” conversations for after the kids go to bed. Little kids can pick up on worrisome tones and are affected by heated conversations. Don’t turn on the radio when you’re driving them to daycare or preschool—opt for happy music instead.

If your preschooler senses that something’s going on, make sure to set aside some one-on-one time with her. Explain that people are getting sick from ugly germs, and that’s why it’s so important to wash our hands.

You can also watch this fun, lighthearted video about how properly washing your hands can keep you healthy and strong. Or watch Daniel Tiger’s After the Neighborhood Storm, which is about prepping for an emergency.

Above all else, reassure your children that they’re okay. Don’t overwhelm their little brains with facts or statistics—they’re too young to comprehend that stuff.

Instead, engage in some comforting activities, such as watching their favorite TV show, eating ice cream, or having a nice cuddle.

School-Aged Children

If your child goes to school, chances are he’s going to hear other kids talking about this new, unknown virus. Or worse—they’ll accuse your child of having it if she coughs or sneezes! Things are definitely going to get blown out of proportion because, well, kids love drama. So, don’t be surprised if your child comes home crying, worried that the apocalypse is around the corner.

Reassure him that his feelings are legit. After all, it’s okay to be concerned about a potential pandemic. However, you can explain that one reason the virus is bombarding the news is because it’s new. The flu is wreaking havoc worldwide, too, but we don’t hear much about it because it’s old news.

Make sure you listen to your child’s specific concerns. Explain which of them are fact, and which are fiction. Be prepared to answer questions. For example, if your child asks what will happen if she gets sick, you can tell her that infection rates are very low for children. Plus, doctors are super-smart and hospitals are ready to treat those who get sick. Keep your responses basic, simple, and to the point.

Try to limit your child’s exposure to the news. We highly suggest you print out A Comic Exploring the New Coronavirus, which was created specifically for children. If you want to address worry in general, check out A Smart Girl’s Guide: Worry or A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety.

If your child expresses concern for older relatives, like Grandma and Grandpa, talk about what they can do to help minimize the spread of germs.

Encourage them to write a list of proactive actions they can start doing today, like the following:

  • Washing hands: Properly and often.
  • Avoid touching your face: That means not picking those boogers (or at least use a tissue).
  • Coughing and sneezing: Buy small packs of tissues to stash in their backpacks. If they don’t have a tissue, teach them how to cough or sneeze into their elbow.
  • Opening doors: Talk about how you can use your elbow to push open a door instead of grabbing the handle.
  • Hand sanitizer: Pack a small bottle in their backpacks for times they can’t wash their hands.

Tweens and Teens

Worried boy, sitting in his living room with his parents.

Your tween or teen is probably doing her own research, especially if she has a smartphone or tablet. So, she’s probably reading and seeing the same stuff you are, which can be scary!

Talk openly about what’s happening, especially if she doesn’t initiate the conversation. Don’t assume silence means she’s coping. Make sure she knows certain news stories generate drama simply to attract attention. If either of you is doubtful about a story’s validity, do some thorough fact-checking.

Next, write up a list of what she can do to minimize the spread of germs, such as practicing good hygiene, not touching her face, not shaking hands, and so on. This is also a good time to review proper handwashing techniques. Having a practical focus can definitely help redirect anxiety and worry.

Also, don’t be afraid to involve your older children in emergency prep work. They can help write up lists of what you’ll need in case of a quarantine or if school is canceled. They can even go shopping with you.

Remain Calm

As parents, it’s hard not to freak out. Even though statistics show that children are at a lower risk, the fact that this is a novel virus means we don’t know everything (at least, not yet). Plus, the popular stories are written to grab attention, which, in turn, can stress out even the calmest most rational of parents.

It’s okay to be worried, but try to keep it in check. Read up on panic versus helpful preparation in the face of a pandemic.

When you talk to your kids about the coronavirus (or any other scary news), always try to maintain a calm, consistent tone. Kids can definitely pick up on panic. And again, save any heated conversations for later, when the kids aren’t around.

If you feel like you’re really struggling with your own fears, consider reaching out to a therapist or even talking to your family doctor about your concerns. Focus on what you can do to prevent the illness, like keeping your immune system strong by getting enough sleep, washing your hands, and taking your vitamins.

Kids (and adults) can definitely freak out over scary world news. Stay calm, take some time to talk with them, and redirect their fears into proactive action. And above all else, don’t panic! Your kids are depending on you to guide them through this.

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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