Woman talking to child

Looking for advice on how to explain COVID-19 to kids? We have tips that can help.

Coping with the uncertainty around COVID-19 is challenging for most adults, and kids may be having an even tougher time during the pandemic. Social isolation, being off school or learning remotely for an extended period of time, and uncertainty about what all this means for their friends and family are just a few of the concerns young children and teens may have at this time. So, what is the best way to talk to kids about COVID-19? Here are some strategies that may help.

Managing Parental Anxiety

It will be challenging to address COVID anxiety in kids if your own fears feel out of control. It’s easy for kids to forget that you may have fears about your own parents, your finances if you aren’t able to work during this time, or just the stress of parenting 24/7 as kids are asked to stay home. Use Anxiety Canada’s COVID-19 resources and check in with friends, family, or a mental health professional during this time to ensure you’re coping well. Your mental health matters too!

Open the COVID-19 Dialogue, Ask Questions, Talk About It

Despite the constant news feed and information overload, your child may be confused or unsure of what the current COVID situation is. Ask them what they know, what their worries are, and what they want to know. Don’t be afraid to talk about it, and make sure you address any myths they may have about the illness.

Children may be afraid of seeing their peers, being back in school, or hearing about a second wave, so let them know you’re looking out for them and things will inevitably return to normal. It’s OK to provide a little reassurance during this time. Don’t be afraid to tell your child you’re anxious too – normalize their worries by helping them know it’s OK and healthy to worry a little (it keeps us safe!) but that we never want to let worry take over and become unhelpful.

It is important that if you are co-parenting that both parents are on board on what you are doing and saying to your child, as different messages will confuse and possibly make your child more worried.

Parents can say:

  • “Right now, on the news and all around us, there is a lot of talk about this new virus/people getting sick/a second wave. Is there anything you want to know more about?”
  • “I know we are watching a lot of news right now and I’d like to talk to you about any questions you may have or maybe something that’s hard to understand?”
  • “Mom/Dad/Caregiver don’t have all the answers right now, but let’s talk about what I do know”
  • “Doctors and scientists are studying to learn more about this virus so they can help us figure out the best way to beat it. So far we know that to help beat it we can wash our hands after we blow our noses, cough, sneeze, go to the bathroom, before we eat, or when we come home from being outside, But we need to wash them for at least twenty seconds so let’s come up with a Hand-Washing Song together (easy to find kid versions on YouTube/Google) to help us learn how long we should be washing for.”

If you are working in a profession/job where you have direct contact with individuals affected by COVID19, your child may have specific questions and concerns about your safety. Being open, honest, and direct can be effective:

  • “I know you’re worried about me getting sick and that’s OK. I agree it can feel scary sometimes for me too but I want you to know I am taking extra special care to stay safe and keep all of us safe too. I want you to remember that even if I do get sick this flu is mostly dangerous for older adults and people whose bodies have a tough time fighting off flus and other germs so I won’t feel good but I’ll be OK.”

For younger children:

  • “This is a serious flu that makes some people very sick. Most people are just fine even if they get sick, but it’s important to wash our hands and stay home while this flu goes around.”
  • “Even if we’re not sick and your friends don’t feel sick it’s important that we work together to stop this flu from spreading, and that means we are not able to see our friends right now. But once this virus/flu goes away, then we can all hang out again.”
  • To encourage your child to wash their hands, parents can make a game of it: “I know I am reminding you to wash your hands a lot. Let’s make this into a game. If I hear you singing our “Handwashing Song” that we’ve been practicing each time you wash your hands, we’ll put a sticker on your chart. When you have x number of stickers you can choose a prize. Remember you only earn the sticker if you wash your hands when you need to, no stickers for extra washing when we don’t need to wash. Can you remind me again when are the right times to wash our hands?”
  • “Another thing that doctors are saying is that we need to be further away from people then we are used to, that’s why we haven’t been able to see Grandma and Grandpa as much. So instead, let’s video call them so we can see how they are doing.” – Following the video chat, you can say “See? Was Mr. Worry right or wrong – grandma/grandpa/etc. are just fine! That Mr. Worry just LOVES to make us worry more than we need to doesn’t he!?”
  • For younger children you can show them how much space we need between people by having them extend out their arms and swing around to make their “space bubble.”And use words like “Don’t be a space invader”
  • “Scientists still are learning more about this virus so we can find other ways to beat it, so even though I don’t have all the answers right now, Mom/Dad/caregiver will let you know when I learn more about it.”

Explain COVID In Their Terms

So many phrases are tossed around that are confusing – virus, “social distancing”, quarantine, reopening, second wave, etc. It can be easy to overestimate a child’s verbal ability, so start by explaining it in the simplest terms possible. Help put it into perspective, especially for young children.

Kids may worry about their grandparents or worry about their peers during this time – if possible try to communicate with them via videoconferencing so they can talk and see with their own eyes and ears that most people are doing just fine. Anxiety makes us predict the worst and we can expose kids to the truth in times like this to see that anxiety isn’t always right.

Use Coping Strategies That Work

Strategies that work for other worries and anxiety work for COVID anxiety too. Ask your child to use their Realistic Thinking skills and generate alternatives to worried thoughts like “What else could happen instead?” or have them sort their worries into helpful worries (that help us wash our hands and stay safe) and unhelpful ones (that cause of to avoid things or just think and think with no action). Anxiety Canada’s resources for anxiety in children can help you execute these strategies.

Let your child know that anxiety is OK and normal, and giving anxiety a name helps everyone see anxiety as separate from the child. Some popular names are Worry Bully, Mr. Worry or Worry Dragon, or any name that makes sense, and is not scary to your younger child can be used.

Parents can say:

  • “Mom/Dad/Caregiver  is worried about this virus too and it’s OK to feel worried or anxious about things we don’t understand because a little worry helps keep us safe. But we don’t want the worry to get too big because then the Worry Bully may take over and we won’t be able to enjoy life.”
  • “Let’s not watch the news too much as it will just feed your worries about this virus, maybe just one or two times a day is all you need to know what is going on”

For younger children:

  • “It seems like Mr. Worry is trying to scare you about the virus/this serious flu, let’s boss him back by making a list of the helpful worries and the ones that are not helpful.”
  • “Let’s not think about what may happen in the future right now or spend too long focused on the Worry Dragon. Let’s go and do a puzzle together (or some other activity in the present)”
  • “It sounds like Mr. Worry is trying to tell you what is going to happen in the future again.” We can’t know the future but what we can do is make sure we do everything the scientists and doctors are telling us to do to keep safe, like washing our hands, staying home and trying not to touch our face.”
  • “It’s important for us all to remember this isn’t going to last forever and we’ll be able to see and play with friends again – we just can’t do that right now, but when the doctors say it’s safe we can do all that fun stuff again.”

Make it into a game:

It can be really difficult to keep kids from touching their faces and explaining why it’s so important.

  • “Let’s have a contest and see who can touch their face the least and whoever wins gets a prize. Parents will be watching to see if anyone touches their face and if I spot anyone touching their face we add one point to your score. Each day we’ll count up our points and whoever has the lowest score that day gets a small treat. Whoever has the lowest score at the end of the week gets to pick the movie we’re going to watch Friday night (or other choices like what’s for dinner that night, a favorite dessert, etc).”
  • For younger children it can help to include visuals so parents can set up a jar and every time that someone touches their face in the family (parents included) they have to put (a dime/quarter) in the jar and whoever touches their face the least wins the money in the jar at the end of the day. Buttons, marbles, poker chips, or even candies can be used to fill the jar depending on what your child enjoys.

Keep Your Child Active

We can’t expect children to understand or even be OK or happy with staying home and not seeing their friends during periods of lockdown or isolation. Explain to them you’re not happy either but that you’re working on this together. Take a break from the news and social media and take this time to play with your kids and help build an even better parent-child relationship during this time.

With school closures or disruptions like remote/hybrid learning, try to build in new routines and predictability to help kids adjust to the changes in their lives. Kids still need consistency, fun and attention even in the midst of all this anxiety and uncertainty. 

Parents can say:

  • “I know it’s hard for you not to be able to see your friends or go places. It’s hard for me too, I miss my friends and activities. Let’s focus on what we can do right now. We can (e.g., practice those math problems, do laundry together, put those photos in an album like we have been wanting to for so long but never had the time) or go and do something fun.
  • Let’s stop watching the news or checking Instragram/Snapchat/FaceTime and instead let’s (play a game together, bake, use it as an opportunity to catch up on our favourite series, go outside and make a snowman, throw around a ball, etc.)”

Explaining COVID-19 to kids can be tough as the situation changes from day to day, but with these strategies under your belt you can find a method that works for you and your child and helps you weather the storm.

Visit our Anxiety In Children hub for more resources and coping strategies for kids.

Thanks to Scientific Advisory Committee members Felicity Sapp and Daniel Chorney for creating this resource.

This article is also available in Punjabi. Please click here to see it in Punjabi.