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Talking to Children About COVID-19

Talking to Children About COVID-19

Christian Family Institute

Published: April 7, 2020

I’m watching a carefree boy teach himself tricks on a trampoline. He knows the word “pandemic” and is keenly aware of the fact that we have to stay home all the time. He knows these things but he has no idea how much energy I put into keeping him safe from an invisible enemy.

I first heard of coronavirus in December. I listened on as it made its way to other countries and finally to the States. Along the way I started to wonder, “How do I explain this to kids?” I have the pleasure of working as a therapist for children of all ages but explaining a prolonged, anxiety-inducing event to a 7-year-old can be tough.

There is a fine line when explaining the harsher realities of life to young ones. Too little information and the child’s imagination can run wild and too much information can overwhelm their emotional system. The general rule is “be honest to a developmentally appropriate level”. In other words, present a basic overview, avoid the stark details, and allow the child to ask questions. Answer questions as best you can but sometimes the best response is to explain that you will explain more when they’re older. If a child of 11 or 12 wants to know the more sobering details then more discussion would be in order. Below that age, do your best to help them feel confident in your ability to manage the world around them.

Although it is a great guide on how to handle difficult conversations, that rule of thumb does not tell you what to say specifically. So that left me fumbling around for a week before I figured out an adequate explanation. An explanation that presents the situation with the attitude that we, as people, can have some control over what happens. This is what I came up with…

  1. Establish some connection with the child. If the child is upset help them to calm down. Be present, be quiet, and take long, slow breaths. Gently encourage them to do the same.
  2. The Car Analogy (have a toy figure or doll and a toy car nearby)–
    • a. Begin by asking if they are afraid of cars driving by on the street. This typically elicits a “no” answer because they’re used to seeing cars every day.
    • b. Hand the figure/doll to them, explaining that they are the figure and you are the car.
    • c. Tell them that you are going to drive the car at their person slowly and you want them to show you what they would do if they were the person.
    • d. As you start to move the car slowly toward them, the child will most likely move the figure out of the way. If you do not see this, remind them to keep their person safe.
  3. The lesson of the demonstration is that the child is not afraid of cars because they know how to handle the situation. They stay out of the way.
  4. The application is that they do not need to fear our current situation because we know what we can do. Although it pales in comparison to having a superpower, staying at home is the way we fight our unseen enemy.

It’s okay if there are still more questions. Answer what you can but always find ways to stress that we have ways to manage this outbreak. If you’ve wondered how to handle this, you’re not alone. The first and biggest thing they need is you. Spending time with your child will help them to follow your lead. Your presence is better than your perfection.

Written by Chris Hogue, M.A.

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