Q & A: Talking to Kids about COVID-19

CCAS Professor of Psychology Cynthia Rohrbeck shared some tips on the best approaches to discussing the global pandemic with children.

mother with children
March 30, 2020

By Briahnna Brown

In times of uncertainty, it can be difficult to discuss some topics with children, and the coronavirus pandemic is more than uncertainty—the public health crisis is one that children and their parents have not seen before.

Children and teens may struggle with making sense of everything happening in the world, especially as their lives have to adjust to social distancing guidelines such as school closures and transitions to online learning.

That is why it is important for parents, caretakers and those with younger siblings to be prepared to initiate discussions about the virus and its impact in a way that reassures the children in their lives, said Cynthia Rohrbeck, a professor of psychology in the George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Dr. Rohrbeck, whose research focuses on child stress and coping, spoke with GW Today about the best way to approach discussions with children about COVID-19:

Q: How do you know if you need to talk to a child about the pandemic?

A: Given that the child is likely to hear (or have heard) reference to COVID-19, it is probably a good idea to at least initiate a discussion with them. If a child is not initially interested, it is important that you “leave the door open” to speaking to them about it when they are ready.

Q: How can I best explain to a child what COVID-19 is?

A: First, assuming you know the child well or that it is your child, you can use your knowledge about the child to determine how much information is enough. Consider the child’s age, and what will be reassuring but not overwhelming. Depending on the child’s developmental level and age, they will understand concepts differently over time and may have new questions over the next few weeks or months.

Second, repetition is your friend. Sometimes we assume that when we explain something once to another person (whether an adult or a child), that is sufficient. But most people need to discuss concerns over time; particularly with children, repetition can be very helpful. In addition, avoiding talking about COVID-19 may make kids worry more.

You can start the conversation with a child by asking them what they have heard about the coronavirus and how they feel about recent changes in their lives.

Q: How do I talk to children when I’m anxious?

A: Try to have these conversations when you aren’t feeling anxious. You might want to model how you cope with your worries—for example, perhaps slow deep breaths, distraction with a funny TV show, a hug. If you have an older child, you might want to limit how much time they watch news about COVID-19, and/or you may want to watch news with your child so that you can provide your interpretation.

Q: How can I teach kids the importance of prevention?

A: A key element here is to emphasize that prevention is one way to stay safe. If a child knows how to stay safe (e.g., washing hands well), that may help them to feel more in control. Here, too, repetition helps: You can remind children to wash their hands for 20 seconds when coming inside from outside, before they eat, after blowing their nose or sneezing and after using the bathroom, and that these are all important ways of preventing becoming ill with coronavirus.

Q: If I have to explain to a child what death is in relation to the virus, what is the best way to go about doing that?

A: If death needs to be addressed with a child in the context of the coronavirus—and it may very well not be needed—it is important for the child to understand that some people can get very sick, and occasionally so sick that their body is unable to cope with the sickness. You would want to explain that death from the virus is rare and may even be rarer than we think (because we don’t know how many people have had the disease and recovered).

Q: What can I do to reassure and comfort children in the midst of this pandemic?

A: You can note that people all over the world and their parents and grandparents have faced many viruses in the past. We have had experience with a number of these (including the flu each year). Although COVID-19 is a new virus that we are just learning about, it appears that children often have much milder cases than older adults. You can find “heroes” in the world, e.g., health care workers, and note how they are taking care of those who are ill.

No matter what age, encourage your child to ask questions. Note to them that you may not have all the answers to their questions, but that you will try to find out the answers. For older children, this new virus provides an opportunity to empower them to seek answers to questions they might have: Go on the internet with them to reputable sources (e.g., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). You can also encourage them to talk to other adults that they trust.

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