Caring for Your Child’s Wellbeing – COVID-19
March 20, 2020
Given the extensive media coverage and the increasing number of people wearing face masks in public, it is not surprising that some children are already aware of the virus and feeling anxious too. Children of all ages will inevitably pick up on the concerns and anxiety of others, whether this be through listening and observing what is happening at home, at school, online or on TV. Some find it difficult to understand what they are seeing and hearing and can be particularly vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness. Regardless of your child’s age, it is important that they can speak with you about their concerns. Having an open, supportive discussion with your children can help them understand, cope and even make a positive contribution for others. Being both physically and emotionally available to have further conversations as they need will also contribute to their ability to keep on coping well.
Before you start …
It is very important that you model calmness when discussing COVID-19 with your child and not alarm them with any concerns you may have. Remain calm and manage your own anxieties before bringing up this topic with them and answering their questions.
Make sure you are in a safe, calm and relaxed environment and have adequate time to explore this issue with them.
Your full, undivided attention is vital for your child to feel heard, valued and reassured that you are there to help them whatever may arise in the future.
If you have several children, consider having multiple conversations, ensuring that each child has their own time to explore this issue with you.
Some children may feel more comfortable talking while they draw, listen to stories, walk the dog, go out for coffee or other activities. These can help to open up a discussion.
For very young children they may not know much, if anything about the virus, so you may not need to raise the issue at all. Merely focus on good hygiene practices.
Finally, remember that this may need to be a conversation that is revisited as the situation evolves.
Ask open questions and listen
Begin by inviting your child to talk about the issue of the COVID-19 virus. Ask open questions that are age appropriate that inquire about what they know and understand about the virus and then follow their lead.
(eg have you heard anything about the COVID-19 virus – what do you think about it? What do you know about COVID-19?)
Acknowledge their feelings and concerns. Reassure them that feeling scared, confused, sad or worried is natural and you are there to help them with whatever may arise.
Be honest: explain the truth in a child-friendly way
There is a sensitive balance between children of all ages having a right to truthful information about what is going on in the world, and adults having a responsibility to keep them safe from distress.
After hearing about what they know, you can clarify any misunderstandings or misinformation they may have.
Let their questions and concerns guide your conversation and the information your share with them.
Answering their questions in an honest and age-appropriate way will help to reduce any anxiety, confusion or stress they may be feeling.
Be clear and focus on the facts. Refrain from sharing unnecessary information that is not relevant to them or within their scope of thinking or concern.
If you can’t answer their questions, don’t guess. Use this opportunity to explore answers together and model how to use trusted experts and credible sources (eg UNICEF, World Health Organisation).
Show them how to protect themselves and their friends and family
Giving your child the opportunity to take an active role in keeping themselves and others safe will give them a sense of control and promote their resilience. Talk with them and show them how to:
- Wash their hands thoroughly with soap for 20 seconds. They need to do this after they blow their nose, cough into their hand, sneeze, go to the bathroom and before they eat or prepare food.
- Follow cough/sneeze etiquette – cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze. Use a disposable tissue if possible and immediately dispose of the tissue afterwards. If no tissue is available, cough or sneeze into their upper sleeve.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitisers where available.
- Practice social distancing – keep a sensible distance (1-1.5m) away from others and avoid physical contact. No handshakes, hugs or ‘high fives’. You may need to be creative in how you teach and model this distancing, especially with younger children. Have some fun collaborating over ways to show affection and love to family in ‘virus-aware’ ways.
- Keep away from other people who are sick.
- Explain the need to have limited contact with elderly relatives and neighbours to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.
- Cancel social plans with friends.
If your child becomes unwell, explain that they have to stay home or in hospital to keep themselves and their friends safe.
Children feel a strong sense of security, calm and reassurance when their daily routines and schedules are as regular as possible eg meal times, sleep routines, play and relaxation activities, screen times, curfews and general house rules.
Reassure them that you and other adults in their life (teachers, Principal, medical experts) are keeping informed about the virus, are making decisions to protect everyone’s health and wellbeing and working hard to keep everyone safe.
Remind your child that they are not likely to catch the virus as it is less common and less severe in children, and that most people who do get the virus do not get very sick.
Allow regular contact (phone, Skype, FaceTime etc) with people they may worry about, such as grandparents, to reassure them that they are OK.
Check if they are experiencing or spreading stigma
The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought with it cases of racial discrimination so it is important to check that your child is not being bullied or bullying others. Explain that the virus has nothing to do with anyone’s race, appearance, spoken language or where they live.
Gently check whether your child is experiencing any difficulties with others.
Remind them that everyone has the right to feel safe and be treated kindly. Bullying is always wrong and we can all do our part to show kindness and support each other.
Look for helpers
It is really comforting for children to know that people are helping each other and showing kindness in many ways. Focusing on positive examples can help relieve stress and worry and empower your child to identify ways they can show kindness to others in this difficult time.
Share stories of health workers, scientists, neighbours, young people and even strangers who are working to stop the outbreak, show compassion and keep the community safe.
Close conversations with care
As your conversation comes to an end, try to gauge your child’s level of distress by watching their body language, tone of voice, eye contact and breathing.
Remind them that you care, you are listening and you are available any time to talk.
Limit media exposure
Frequent exposure to media reports about COVID-19 can increase a child’s fear, confusion and anxiety.
With children and young adolescents, try to be with them while they are watching, listening or reading the news so you can address any questions or concerns they may have.
Encourage your child to limit the amount of time they spent accessing information about the virus.
The Department of Health has developed a collection of resources for the general public, health professionals and industry about COVID-19, including translated resources.
The World Health Organisation provides information and guidance regarding the current outbreak of coronavirus disease.
Australian Psychological Society 2020, Tips for coping with coronavirus anxiety, viewed 17 March 2020, <https://www.psychology.org.au/getmedia/5fbb4efe-c599-4572-8ded-5b4ee5f41ff1/20APS-IS-COVID-19-Public-P2.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=COVID-19%20%20Updates%20on%20APS%20resources%20education%20and%20training&utm_content=COVID-19%20%20Updates%20on%20APS%20resources%20education%20and%20training+CID_e840e5eaa16e15f483923ddfe92a2b45&utm_source=Email%20marketing%20software&utm_term=Resources%20for%20clients>.
Beyond Blue 2020, Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak, viewed 17 March 2020, <https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak>.
McKersie, C 2020, Caring for your child’s wellbeing at the time of coronavirus, Letter, COVID-19, Claremont College, delivered 13 March 2020.
UNICEF 2020, How to talk to your children about coronavirus (COVID-19), viewed 17 March 2020, <https://www.unicef.org.au/blog/news-and-insights/march-2020/how-to-talk-to-your-children-about-coronavirus>.