Talking to Children about COVID-19
Written by Julie Bisnath, BSW, RSW
With many children returning to care, you might be wondering about how exactly to approach the topic of COVID-19 with your little ones. As adults, many of us struggle to understand the full scope of the pandemic—our brains are on information overload and our hearts can only take so much. I for one, have had to seriously limit my daily intake of news and especially statistics—and no matter how hard I try, I cannot even comprehend what’s happening in the U.S. How, then, can we possibly support children in their learning and understanding? How can we answer their questions? How can we help them to be resilient? Thankfully, there are well-developed resources and tools to help us out.
Back in March—long before “pandemic”, “physical distancing”, and “PPE” were part of our regular vocabulary, I published this blog post https://ccprn.com/covid-19-information-and-ideas-to-share/ addressing how to talk to children about the current situation and how to teach young children about germs and handwashing. While the information still holds up (if you haven’t had a chance, I suggest a quick read), we are at a place now where we simply need more.
Building on the previous article, this post will highlight the following topics:
- Answering questions and addressing concerns
- Mask wearing and physical distancing
- Building resiliency in young children
- Books for children on COVID-19
As always, we strongly encourage open communication with your daycare parents—work together to decide what/how information will be shared with the children. When children receive consistent messaging, it helps them to feel safe and secure.
Answering questions and addressing concerns:
One of my favourite resource websites, www.caringforkids.cps.ca, provides us with a few specific things to do and say when talking with children:
- Reassure your child that many doctors, nurses, and scientific experts around the world are working hard to keep us safe and healthy.
- Children are observant and pick up on our expressions and emotions. Help them to understand, verbalize and organize their own feelings around the pandemic.
- Find out what they know about what is happening. Correct any misinformation about “this new germ”.
- Be honest, but positive. Reinforce that they are unlikely to get sick, but that it is still important that they do their part to protect themselves and their families — especially those who are at higher risk.
Just as when we address any difficult issue (serious illness, death, fire, etc.) it’s important to follow the child’s lead and to focus on helping them feel safe. Some children might have a lot of questions and others might not have any. Welcome questions but keep your answers clear and simple. Try not to offer more detail than necessary and if you don’t know the answer, say so. Focus on validating the child’s feelings and concerns while reassuring them that they are safe. Finally, keep the conversation going—let them know that you are available to answer any other questions that they might have.
Mask wearing and physical distancing:
An important aspect in reassuring children is to focus on what you’re doing to stay safe. In addition to enhanced handwashing (covered previously), mask-wearing and physical distancing are now part of everyday life.
Whether or not a child wears a mask they are still likely to be exposed to others who wear them. You can help to normalize this experience by talking about how masks keep us all safe.
Here in Ottawa, mask wearing is mandatory for many indoor enclosed public spaces and to access public transit. This is what Ottawa Public Health tells us:
Children under two years of age, or children under the age of five years either chronologically or developmentally who refuse to wear a mask and cannot be persuaded to do so by their caregiver can be exempt from wearing masks.
Encourage your child to wear a mask by the following:
Kids watch, listen and learn. Explaining the importance of mask wearing in simple terms can help them understand why wearing a mask is important. Allow them to ask questions and express their feelings. You may want to start by reading a bit on how to help children cope with stressful public events to give you some guidance.
Consider letting your little one(s) choose their mask pattern and/or colour. Kids like to feel independent and being given choices. If you are able, include your child in selecting a cloth mask of their choice.
Include masks in imaginative play
Young children have amazing imaginations. Include a few cloth masks in their playtime and see what they come up with. Having masks present in their environment will let them become more comfortable to the look and feel of masks.
Set an example
When heading out in public, show your kids how you put on your mask and explain why you are doing it – to protect those around you. Be a role model of the behaviours you are hoping to imprint on your youngest. Kids absorb information so quickly and mirror behaviours they see, especially of their care takers.
Another great article for talking to children about mask wearing can be found here: https://monadelahooke.com/how-to-talk-to-your-child-about-wearing-a-mask/. Author Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., provides suggestions on how to encourage children to wear a mask while not straining an already stressful situation.
Physical distancing is another strategy that we are all using to stay safe. Like mask wearing, there are things that you can do to help children understand the importance of this strategy.
While children in a home child care environment may not necessarily be required to remain physically distanced from one another (although best practice includes encouraging as much individual play as possible and increasing the space between children during naps and mealtime), they would need to practice physical distancing at a park, play ground, or library/play group type event. Children used to regular outings might ask why these excursions have been limited or are no longer part of their daycare experience. Explaining in simple terms is best, starting with a discussion about germs and how they spread.
Here’s a good start, adapted slightly from https://www.kindercare.com/lp/explaining-social-distancing-kids:
Germs are so tiny you cannot see them with your eyes. These germs can make us sick if they enter our bodies. Sometimes we breathe them in. Other times we might touch our nose, mouth, or eyes with unwashed hands that have touched a dirty surface or a sick person. Sometimes, it’s hard for people to tell if they have germs that make others sick. So that’s one reason why we’re all physical distancing. Doctors think it’s best to stay away from most other people so they cannot touch or cough on you. Not going out (at all or as much), helps us to stay far apart from other people. Just like good handwashing, physical distancing keeps the germs away and helps us to stay healthy.
Refer to https://ccprn.com/covid-19-information-and-ideas-to-share/ for ideas on talking specifically about germs and handwashing.
Resiliency strategies for young children:
“Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from life’s inevitable pressures and hard times. It helps us handle stress, overcome childhood disadvantage, recover from trauma and reach out to others and opportunities so we can grow and learn.” https://www.reachinginreachingout.com/aboutresilience.htm
Modeling and practicing self-regulation and resiliency skills with children builds their character and teaches important skills for life long happiness and success.
Not too long ago, I came across this easy to read article “Building Resilience in Children – 20 Practical, Powerful Strategies” filled with lots of strategies relating to:
- Expanding the circle of support
- Learning how to ask for help
- Encouraging mindfulness activities
- Developing feelings of competence and mastery
- Nurturing optimism and a growth mindset
- Facing fear and taking risks
and so much more!! I have read this article many times and love that most of the strategies are easy to implement and/or adapt to the age of the child. I have referred to it professionally and also personally when thinking about my own children and how to build and nurture their resiliency. Working to implement strategies such as those suggested in the article, over time, will help to prepare a child for dealing with challenges by giving them the tools and skills they need to thrive.
When I think about how we (individually but also as a society) are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic (certainly one of “life’s inevitable pressures and hard times”) it puts into perspective just how essential these strategies really are.
Books for children on COVID-19:
Reading together provides a wonderful opportunity for connection and can help children to process difficult information. Story books often help children to feel more at ease with their feelings as they explore sensitive issues in a non-threatening way. Be sure to read the story first yourself to make sure that its content is appropriate.
Together, Apart: Life during the Coronavirus ($14.95 proceeds to CHEO and Kids Help Phone)
By Loukia Zigoumis
“Offering a glimpse of hope while reinforcing COVID-19 preventative measures like hand washing and social distancing”.
Order a copy by emailing: [email protected]
The New York City School Library System has put together an extensive (it’s huge!) list of free e-books in multiple languages—definitely worth spending some time here.
Coronavirus: A Book for Children (free pdf e-book) (also included in the list above)
By Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson & Nia Roberts
“Written in consultation with an infectious diseases specialist and illustrated by Axel Scheffler of The Gruffalo, this nonfiction picture book offers children information about transmission, symptoms and the possibility of a cure, reassuring readers that doctors and scientists are working on developing a vaccine.”
A Kid’s Guide to Coronavirus (free pdf e-book)
By Rebecca Growe, MSW, LCSW, and Julia Martin Burch, PhD
“Kids have a lot of questions about the coronavirus pandemic and all the new changes in their lives. This colorful picture book gives them the answers they’ve been looking for, explaining what the virus is, how it spreads, and what they can do to help, in gentle and simple language that even the youngest kids can follow. A Note to Parents and Caregivers offers strategies for helping your kids navigate anxiety they might be feeling around the pandemic.”
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: Growing Up Resilient–Ways to build resilience in children and youth:
Ottawa Public Health–Resources for Those Pregnant and Parenting During COVID-19
Ottawa Public Health–Masks
Ministry of Health COVID-19 Fact Sheet: Talking to Children About the Pandemic:
Caring For Kids (Canadian Paediatric Society) COVID-19 and your child:
Ministry of Education Operational Guidance During COVID-19 Outbreak Child Care Re-Opening Version 2 – July 2020: