How to talk to your kids about the Coronavirus (and any other future panic-inducing pandemics)

talking to children about the coronavirus

The Coronavirus epidemic has been grabbing a lot of attention recently, raising many concerns worldwide.  As you’re reading this, you’re probably concerned about the virus yourself, even outside of China. Considering the rumors, stories, videos and social media attention to the virus, it’s hard to blame kids for taking part in the collective anxiety. If you haven’t discussed this recent outbreak with your child yet, you’ll probably find yourself in that situation soon enough. Children will have questions and may worry about this new disease, and it is our job, as parents, to help them manage their anxieties.

First, accept that you probably can’t avoid conversations about the virus

At the moment, ignoring the virus and pretending it does not exist might feel like the most practical thing we can do. After all, there is little we can do to solve this global crisis. However, avoiding talking about it is unlikely to work. The Contravirus all over the news, the web and water-cooler conversations. Your child has probably seen news stories about the virus or heard about it at school so ignoring is probably not an option. 

So how do we do it?

Look for the right time to engage your child

Your kid may come to you and raise the subject, and if so – great. But if that doesn’t happen, look for other signs that you should talk about it. If you’re watching the news as a family and the topic comes up in the broadcast, check your child to see if he or she is showing signs of worry. If it comes up during dinner, don’t avoid it. It’s time to talk.

How to start the conversation

Start by asking and finding out what your child knows about the coronavirus. While most children know something about the illness, much of their knowledge may be fragmentary, exaggerated, or simply wrong. This is your time to dispel any unfounded rumors, correct any misconceptions and replace them with facts. 

This also means that you should know the basic facts about the virus yourself. 

You can find the basic facts from a reliable source such as WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/lung/coronavirus

And you can find the up-to-date information here: https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200124/coronavirus-2020-outbreak-latest-updates

Your main message is: “This virus is scary, but there are actions being taken to protect us from it”.

Tell your child:

  1. Doctors all around the world are working hard to find a cure and a vaccine. Soon, we’ll probably be able to cure this sickness, or even prevent it.
  2. The authorities in China are doing their best to contain the sickness and prevent it from infecting more people. So far, only a small minority of the people contracted this sickness.
  3. The authorities outside of China, such as those in the United States, are watching closely to see who’s coming to the country and see if they’re sick. The very few people that were found to be sick are now getting treatment, and we’re making sure they will not pass the virus to anyone else. 
  4. There are things we can do as a family to keep ourselves safe. The best advice, based on CDC recommendations, is to:
    • Wash your hands thoroughly regularly throughout the day.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
    • Avoid contact with people who are sick.

If your child asks a question you’re not sure how to answer, suggest you go look up the answer together. Look for information only on credible sources, such as the WebMD articles suggested above. Avoid sources known for spreading misinformation, such as Facebook posts or non-credible news sites. For young children, this is a good chance to practice good habits for avoiding fake news and seeking reliable information online.  

In general, the best way to deal with anxiety is not to avoid the topic altogether, as that just leaves the child to deal with her fears by herself and communicates that the topic is too scary to talk about. Have a conversation instead. Admit that the scary thing is scary, dispel any misinformation, and remind the child of all the steps that are taken to keep her safe. For many kids, it is especially useful to remind them of a few steps they can take themselves, as that would allow them to feel empowered when facing the danger. Such talk can help in the case of the current Coronavirus, or in any other future scares. 

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