How to discuss COVID-19 with children as a parent or guardian
Even though we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed around the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential that we pay attention to our children. They are little sponges for emotional upheavals and we need to address their fears as they arise so they can feel comforted and reassured moving forward.
Are you ready for this discussion?
No doubt you have your own stresses around the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to be able to guide your children effectively, you must first check in with your own feelings and ensure you are comfortable talking on the topic. If you don’t feel comfortable, do some more research, wait until you are in a better frame of mind and then proceed. In the meantime, encourage your kids to visit this page on the Kookaburra Kids website.
Tailor the discussion
Kids at various stages of maturity will absorb information in different ways. Also, kids all progress at different rates so what works with one child may not work with another of the same age. You know your children best and so you will know how best to tailor the discussion around COVID-19 to suit their maturity level.
You may choose to have a whole-of-family chat around the dinner table that encourages questions. In that case, you should try to temper the discussion to be suitable for either the youngest or the perhaps even the one who is the most emotionally impacted. Individual conversations are recommended so that everyone receives the information they need in a way that is comfortable for them.
Also keep an eye out for natural opportunities for discussion such as when your children ask questions after a news story. When the topic is fresh in their mind, it’s the perfect time to talk. If you happen to notice their play activities involving COVID-19 themes, gently incorporate a discussion around their fears or perceptions.
Foster an environment where questions can be asked openly
Kids are extremely imaginative. When they are simply told “there’s nothing to be scared of”, they can become very creative and conjure their own ideas of what could happen to them and their family. This may be based on ‘chatter’ they hear at school or home and what they see on TV or hear on the radio.
It’s important to include kids in age-appropriate discussions about COVID-19 so they feel they can participate in any affirmative action the family implements. Participation provides a sense of empowerment, which is very beneficial for good mental health. Invite your children to talk about the virus so you can find out how much they already know. Take some time out to devote your full attention to them, complete with eye contact and physical reassurance.
Be careful with your language so they don’t feel their fears are being minimised or ridiculed. Kids can sense inauthenticity so be as truthful as you can about what’s going on, without feeding their fears with information they don’t need in order for their young minds to comprehend.
Discuss a list of people with whom they can safely discuss COVID-19. It should be adults who have a balanced perspective and who are not, themselves, overwhelmed with fear and panic. This could be their other parent or guardian, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, close family friends and even health professionals.
Give accurate information
Kids have a keen sense of when they’re being told untruths. It’s also far more helpful to provide accurate information than to try to make it up as you go along.
Be honest if you don’t know an answer and use it as an opportunity to research the answer together. This teaches young people how to evaluate different sources and teaches them to trust experts.
Don’t tell unnecessary white lies. Kids will often hear the truth from others, and it can be a distorted version. It’s far better for them to know that they can trust their own parents as a resource for facts. Lying to kids can fuel feelings of being unsafe and may reduce the likelihood that they come and talk to you about this topic (or others) in the future.
Temper the way you present information. Don’t focus on the total death count or similar absolutes. Instead, provide a balanced account with a broader focus. For example, discuss the range of potential symptoms and that they are sometimes mild, sometimes serious. Remind your children that their chance of serious complications is very, very low.
Trustworthy information sources
Stay informed with factual, up-to-date information from health authorities, Australian Government Department of Health.
Download the federal government’s official ‘Coronavirus Australia’ app:
If a family member is now – or already was – experiencing mental health issues, explain it to your child in a language they understand. Research shows that being open with kids about mental illness can be a relief for them. They may have observed symptoms or behaviours and wondered if it’s their fault, or tried to figure out how they can help. Talking openly helps them make sense of the changes they have noticed. Reassuring them that they are not the cause and that they don’t have to ‘fix’ you can relieve them of a large burden.
Explain how the outbreak can impact the mental health of those around them
The COVID-19 pandemic is placing enormous pressure on all aspects of society. The mental stress on parents and grandparents to keep themselves, each other and their children safe from the virus is overwhelming. Panic buying, product shortages, alarmist news items, sensationalist social media posts and regular statistics blasts are reminders multiple times a day that life is currently far from ‘normal’. The pressure on parents to maintain an even keel – at home, at work, in traffic, in stores – is significant, and the result can be a sudden or gradual onset of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.
Give them a sense of control around the pandemic
Empower your children by letting them know how they can help. Show them ways of ‘doing their bit’ that will make a genuine difference in preventing infection and encouraging others to follow suit.
Explain how the spread of the disease can be minimised. Demonstrate social distancing by having them imagine a large hula hoop around their waist. Create a game about germs as dirt and not wanting to get dirt all over themselves. The Wiggles have an excellent video about handwashing for little ones. For older kids, a British teenager cleverly came up with a way of ensuring people wash their hands for the right length of time by singing along to popular lyrics.
Teach kids how to cough and sneeze into their elbow and how to use hand sanitiser when soap and water are not available. Promote better tidiness and hygiene at home because everyone plays a role in keeping the home free from the virus.
Be sure to explain to your kids that if they feel sick, they must advise someone who will take their complaint seriously such as a parent, guardian, grandparent, teacher or other responsible adult.
Kids, especially younger ones have trouble distinguishing what they see on TV and online with their own personal reality. Emphasising the positives is important because it balances the serious messages you also have to discuss.
Explain to kids that the chances of immediate danger, especially for young people are very low. Show your children all the experts that are working hard to keep them and the community safe. This includes doctors, nurses, teachers, police and paramedics.
Maintain your usual routines, even when staying at home because they provide that all-important sense of normalcy and the feeling of being in control. Wake up at the same time, get dressed for the day, have breakfast, feed pets and so on.
Make sure they aren’t experiencing or spreading stigma
The Coronavirus outbreak brought with it numerous reports of racial discrimination. Remind your children that the virus has nothing to do with race, background or how a person looks or speaks. Make sure they have someone they trust that they can report to if they experience bullying.
Help young people stay connected
The increased isolation we’re all experiencing due to COVID-19 can lead to deepening feelings of loneliness. Set up virtual play dates with school friends and cousins using Skype, Zoom, Facetime or Facebook Messenger. Connect them via video with grandparents, friends and relatives, whether a few streets away or across the world.
Close the conversation with care
Throughout the conversation, keep an eye on your child’s mental state and body language. If there are any signs of fear, anxiety, confusion or distress, address them immediately in a way that calms and reassures your child. You may have to divert their attention to something off-topic and postpone parts of the conversation. Remind them that they can talk to you about difficult things at any time.
Take steps to minimise your kids’ exposure to COVID-19 media. Avoid watching the news when they are within earshot and monitor their Internet use. Kids still need to be kids. Try to give them a sense of normal life where you can such as playing in the backyard or doing fun things together like baking, doing puzzles and watching movies.
Encourage regular self-care
Feeling good in ourselves relies on taking time out and switching off from negative impacts where we can. It’s important that you encourage your kids to engage in activities that are fun, positive and can even help them blow off a little steam.
Playing with pets is a great way to focus on someone else’s needs and pets provide unconditional love and attention. Give your kids some exercise suggestions such as setting up a mini-golf course in the backyard, old-fashioned egg and spoon races (beat the clock or race Mum, Dad or siblings), kick a ball around or play hopscotch. Being out in the fresh air and sunshine is incredibly beneficial to mental and physical wellbeing. (Still be vigilant around sun protection.)
For downtime, try the Headspace app for enjoyable meditation sessions for people of all ages. You’ll find special young people’s meditations grouped by age: 5 and under, 6-8 and 9-12. Aside from Headspace, little ones will enjoy the fun Mindful Hand Washing guide and the Smiling Mind app.
Young people often need to be shown how they can care for their own mental wellbeing. Send them over to our Kids page for lots of suggestions on how to do just that.
Do you feel like you need help?
- If your child is struggling and you feel they would benefit from talking to someone who is equipped to assist kids, you can suggest they call the Kids’ Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
- Beyond Blue provides support and information to everyone in Australia, whatever their age or location, to help them achieve their best possible mental health. Call 1300 22 4636.
- If you need URGENT support, don’t hesitate to call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Refer a child
If you are experiencing mental illness or you are not coping amid the COVID-19 crisis and feel your children are being impacted as a result, you may like to refer them to Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation.
Please help us by sharing this page
Help us reach more young people
COVID-19 is a reality of life right now and as a community, we’re all doing the best we can to adapt to measures that are aimed to keep us safe and well. How students are guided to deal with this pandemic now will help equip them with coping mechanisms, resilience and a positive outlook, tools that will be valuable throughout life. Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation performs this role every day for young people from families experiencing mental illness.