11 Tips on Talking to Kids About a Pandemic

Published April 8, 2020
Mother and daughter talking

Discussing local, national, and global health with your kids can feel overwhelming, especially in the midst of a pandemic or epidemic. With government sanctioned rules and recommendations that may impact your kids' day-to-day lives, it's important to help them understand what's going on in an age appropriate way.

Speaking With Your Kids About Pandemics

Experiencing a pandemic, such as coronavirus, with your family can put a lot of extra stress on caregivers and parents. With a shift in schedule taking place and new rules, it's helpful for kids to be able to better understand what's going on so they can adjust to these changes.

Think About What You're Going to Say

Children and teens absorb everything, especially information from their parents or caregivers. Kids have an incredible ability to feed off of other's energy and to read between the lines in difficult situations, even from a very young age. Before chatting with your kids, think about what you want to say to them, and whether what you want to say is to their benefit. Remember that short answers will typically suffice with young children. With older kids and teens, even if they seem fine, it's still important to discuss pandemics with them, and to check in regarding their feelings.

Remain Calm

Speak with your kids in a moment where you feel calm. You want them to feel like you have a strong and solid energy as you discuss something that could be confusing or scary to them. Your protective presence will help assure them during this conversation. Pandemics can bring up a lot of intense emotions for parents, so be sure to process them on your own and don't put your children in a position where they feel as if they need to take care of you emotionally. During a time of uncertainty, it's critical that your child or children know they can count on you to take care of them. Keep in mind that remaining calm does not prevent you from sharing your perspective- just be sure to do so in an age appropriate way. If your child does not ask what you think, it's up to you to decide how telling them will impact their feelings about the situation. Always put their best interest first.

Father and son time

Ask Before Delving in

Instead of jumping into a conversation that your child may find overwhelming, ask them if you can talk about the pandemic with them. This way they'll have a chance to decide whether they feel ready to talk about it at this time. This gives your child an opportunity to check in with themselves and helps encourage self reflection. With toddlers, you can preface the conversation, but you don't need to ask. Examples of asking an older child and teen can look like:

  • Hey, mind if we talk a little about what's being going on with the pandemic?
  • I'm wondering if we could talk about the coronavirus for a bit? I'd like to answer any questions you may have.
  • I know there's a lot of new information floating around about the pandemic and I'd like to chat about it for a little if that's okay with you.

Give Age Appropriate Examples

It's important not to overwhelm kids, regardless of their age, so be sure to offer simple examples and explanations that aren't aimed to scare, but help your child make better sense of what's going on. For example:

  • With a younger child you can talk about how sometimes, "... mommy gets sick or you get sick and then other people in the house may get sick, so we need to wash our hands extra and hang out in the house for a little until everyone else starts feels better."
  • With older kids you can say compare it to a similar illness they are familiar with, but emphasize it's worse and very easy to pass along, so in order to stay healthy, everyone is staying home and taking really good care of their bodies.
  • With teens, you can discuss what they've heard and offer ways to fill in any gaps or concerns that they may have.

Foster Emotional Expression

Kids that feel overwhelmed may have a hard time describing their emotional process. To help facilitate their emotional understanding, you can consider saying:

  • It looks like you feeling (insert emotion). Is that right?
  • Where do you feel (insert emotion) in your body?
  • It's okay to feel that way. I feel that way too sometimes.
  • I know it's hard to feel this way. I'm here for you.

Sit with your child as they feel what they need to feel and try not to dampen their emotions. With teens and mature older kids, you can discuss what their body is trying to tell them and why certain emotions come up. If they are acting out inappropriately, show them other options for processing their emotions such as writing, drawing, talking it out, or taking a walk. The point is to help them feel comfortable with discomfort and not teach them to suppress uncomfortable feelings.

Know When to Pause

If you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a second to collect yourself. Keeping calm is a critical part of your kids feeling secure during a pandemic. If you feel unable to continue the discussion, let your kids know that you want to think about this a bit more before talking about it. Be sure to give them a time when you can pick the discussion up and follow through. If you notice your child becoming overwhelmed, pause and ask how they are feeling. Validate their emotional experience and let them know it's okay to feel this way. Ask them if they are comfortable talking a bit more, or if they feel like speaking at another time. If they are feeling an intense emotion, help them process it and support them.

Caring dad talk with little son

Teach Healthy Processing Skills

Knowing how to process emotions in a healthy way can be a tricky even for adults. To encourage your child to process their feelings about a pandemic, such as coronavirus, help them understand what they are feeling and then identify ways to work through the emotion, instead of helping them move past their feelings quickly. To do so:

  • Discuss your child's feelings with them while using validating language.
  • Tell them you are there for them whenever they want to talk.
  • Tell them that people process emotions differently and there are a few activities they can try such as drawing, painting, journaling, taking a walk, deep breathing, and talking.
  • For older kids you can draw a bell-curve and let them know that emotions tend to peak and then begin to settle back down gradually and that feelings are temporary and can shift.
  • With older children you can help them track their emotions by starting a journal, helping them label their emotions, and assigning a number from zero to 10 that denotes the emotion's intensity. Have them check in again an hour or so later.

Assist With Identifying Emotions

During the conversation, ask your child how they are feeling. If they are unable to put it into words, ask what it feels like in their body. Whatever they say, note that their feelings are normal and that everyone feels that way sometimes. If they are little, you can look up emotion images online or draw emotions to help them pick one or a few they may identify with. Give them positive reinforcement for sharing with you by saying:

  • Thanks so much for sharing with me.
  • It was really brave of you to tell me that.
  • You did a great job figuring out what you were feeling.

Answer Questions Concisely

In most cases, concise answers will typically work for many kids. Oversharing information can come across as overwhelming to some children, so try to answer their question directly without straying to other topics. They will let you know if they have more questions or if something else feels confusing to them. Be patient with them and know that you are helping them organize their thoughts and process this information with every question that you answer.

Mother and daughter talking seriously

Check in During the Discussion

Because some kids might find this discussion to be scary, check in and see how they are doing as you are chatting with them. Situations like Covid-19 may feel very out of control for kids so allowing them to take the lead in terms of conversation cadence can feel really good to them.

Encourage Further Conversations

Discussions about pandemics or other health-related issues are typically not a one time chat. Because circumstances are ever changing, it's important to continue checking in with your child as the situation unfolds. Keep providing your support and reinforce the notion that you are there for them, love them, and are doing everything possible to stay healthy as a family.

Having a Healthy Discussion About Pandemics With Your Child

Knowing how to approach difficult conversations with your child or children about pandemics, such as Covid-19, can help you feel more prepared to respond to their questions calmly, and help them through a challenging time in a healthy way. Remember that you are their rock, and they look to you to guide them when experiences feel difficult or overwhelming, so be sure to be mindful of what you say and how you say it.

11 Tips on Talking to Kids About a Pandemic