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What should we be saying to our children about the coronavirus?

Celia Dean, Clinical Psychologist at Kids Matter, offers some advice on how to chat to little ones about any anxieties they might feel about coronavirus…

By now pretty much everyone will have heard about the coronavirus, in fact there seems to be little else in the news right now. As a result this could be a time of worry and uncertainty for many children. They might not understand the news and why people are constantly talking about the number of people infected and the number of deaths. They’re likely to be hearing new words like pandemic and self-isolation for the first time. Here are some ideas to help us answer some of those questions you might be thinking about.

How can I talk to my child if I’m genuinely worried myself?

Before talking to your child, try and recognise your own fears and worries. Remind yourself that you probably won’t get the coronavirus, but if you do get it, there’s a very good chance you will have mild symptoms and if you’re healthy, you’ll recover quickly. What’s really reassuring is that from the evidence to date, children appear to be relatively unaffected by coronavirus. They may just get symptoms similar to winter coughs and colds with a fever.

As parents we must try and stay calm ourselves, as children take their cues from us. The calmer we can be, the better. Be mindful of what your child might be overhearing either from the TV, radio or from conversations you might be having. They might not appear to be listening but chances are they probably are if they sense some anxiety.

Add in extra time for daily stress relief – build in some activities that calm you and take your mind off all the media coverage. Draw on skills that have helped you cope with stress in the past and use those skills to help you manage your feelings during the challenging time of this outbreak.

How do I know if my child is worrying about Coronavirus?

They might talk opening about it and ask us loads of questions, or their worry might also show up in different ways. Some children might become clingy with their parents, they might start acting out and being less cooperative at home, or squabbling more with their siblings or withdraw or start bed-wetting. Find out what your child is thinking about and what they’ve heard in the playground, from friends, social media or adult conversations and make time to listen to and acknowledge these concerns or worries. Remember to correct any misinformation and if you don’t know, tell them you will find out and let them know the answer to any questions.

How do I reassure my child?

Helping them to express their worries and acknowledging their fears is a first great step. But remember don’t promise them things you can’t control. Children need adults’ love and attention during difficult times. Give them extra time and attention and find time to play and relax together.

If they are worried about getting ill themselves: reassure them that if they get it, it’s likely to be very similar to a cold or flu, with a cough and a fever. Children seem to be least effected by the virus which means, as parents, we can breathe a sigh of relief on that front.

What if my child is worried that a grandparent or I might get sick or die?

Caring for others is such a wonderful quality and this can be put to good effect during this period of uncertainty. However acknowledge that a small number of people might die from the virus but this is very rare and most people who catch it recover well. Reassure them we are all doing everything possible to protect ourselves from getting ill. Remembering that most people who get symptoms do get better on their own and older people are trying to keep themselves at home so there is less chance of them catching the virus. Reassure them that there are lots of people in government trying to stop the virus spreading and lots of doctors and nurses helping people who get unwell to get better. Scientists understand a lot about the virus and we have the ability to test for it. Remember huge numbers of people have already recovered from it.

Provide calm and correct facts by being well informed and give only factual information in words they can understand depending on their age. The news and social media reports can raise anxiety levels, generating fear in all of us so turning off the TV/radio and news is one way of avoiding excessive exposure to media coverage. Check you are using credible sources like the NHS or government websites for the latest guidance and advice. Try not to give too much information all at once, and remember it’s OK if you don’t have all the answers.

What can we do?

As the situation is changing day by day just acknowledging that there is some uncertainty and reassure them you will be keeping up with any recommendations. Try and focus on the present moment and what you can all be doing to stay well. Give clear information and strategies to help reduce their risk of being infected in a reassuring way.

Help our children gain a sense of control by giving them things they can do to stay healthy.

• Use this as an opportunity to teach them about proper hand washing – make it into a singing game if they are young so they wash their hands for a 20 seconds or more. A golden opportunity for learning a skill, staying healthy and building up some new family songs. Washing hands frequently is key.
• Teach them how to catch a sneeze or cough and wiping a runny nose with a tissue and binning it. Show them how to cough into their elbow if no tissue is at hand, rather than into the open air or their hands.
• Understanding that those germs can only infect us if they get into our eyes, nose or mouths means that teaching our children as well as ourselves to stop touching our faces helps minimise the chance of getting unwell. This is no easy feat as we tend to touch our faces about two dozen times an hour! So maybe make up a game that means we can catch each other touching our faces, children always like to point out when their parents make mistakes. This could be a way of everyone learning to break the habit of touching our faces and therefore minimising catching the virus.
What if my child’s nursery or school gets shut down? Try and stick to daily routine at home with regular mealtimes and bedtimes as children prefer having a structure to the days, it helps them feel secure. Try thinking of this time as an opportunity to spend bonus time with your children and learn new games, new skills and try and look for the positives in a time of uncertainty.

How can we help others?

Helping and supporting others is a great way of doing something about the situation. Stay in touch with loved ones by text, phone calls and social media. Make some extra food and drop off a meal on the doorstep of a friend or family member who is unwell. Encourage others to make wise and kind choices.

Remember this outbreak will pass. We will get through it and staying calm and positive, showing kindness to others and building support through friends and family around us will all help. This way we are showing our children we can handle uncertainty and challenges. We will be building resilience and kindness in our children and that is something we can feel immensely proud about.

Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

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