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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

Conversing About Coronavirus: How to Talk to Your Children About the Pandemic

As K-12 schools across America have closed their doors to help stop the spread of coronavirus, parents have had to step into the role of teacher, guiding their children through lessons in mathematics, social studies, art, English, and perhaps even physical education at the local park.

But how are parents guiding their children through some bigger questions — questions about the virus that is sweeping the world and keeping everyone at home and classrooms closed?

Dr. Michelle Paul, psychologist and director of The PRACTICE Mental Health Clinic at UNLV, has suggestions on how to answer these questions in an age appropriate way, and from a place of “wise mind.”

What is “wise mind,” and why is it important when talking to children about the coronavirus?

I think it’s important for all adults to get into a space of ‘wise mind.’ This means finding a balance between our 'emotional mind' and our ‘rational mind.’

As adults, it’s important to access our rational side, and get information from reliable sources such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the World Health Organization, and your local and state health agencies. Don’t spend lots and lots of time on Facebook reading articles that are not evidence based. Avoid reading comments on social media where a lot of fear mongering is going on. Our emotional mind tells us to be worried and fearful, but if we constantly stay in that space, we can’t problem-solve effectively.

We have to recognize — in a rational way — that this is a very serious situation. However, if you stay too long in ‘rational mind,’ you aren’t validating your experience, or the experiences of others. It’s OK to admit and express that this is a scary and stressful situation.

It’s important for adults to strike a balance between these two sides and model this for their children. All conversations with your kids should flow from this balanced perspective.

What are some strategies for talking to your children about coronavirus?

The first thing to remember is that kids benefit from honest communication that provides balanced information.

Depending on their age, you’re going to want to start by asking: Have you heard about the coronavirus? How does that make you feel? It’s important to take a minute to ask them this, because they’re definitely listening. They’re overhearing the news and adult conversations.

Open the conversation with open-ended questions so that they tell you how they’re thinking and feeling. Once they start talking, reinforce that their feelings are valid. It’s OK to tell them that sometimes grownups get worried by what they see on TV, too.

From there, we want to give them honest, well-informed information. You might tell them that the coronavirus is a germ that is making people sick. It can bring a fever, or a cough, or some trouble breathing, but most people get better, and that doctors are working really hard to find medicine. You could relate it to the time that they got a bump or a scrape on the knee, or how they got the flu last year, but got better.

Reinforce that the adults in their life are working hard to take care of them and make them safe. It’s a really good time to remind kids — and each other — that this whole community is coming together to slow the germ down to keep people from getting too sick, too quickly.

What else can parents do when questions about the coronavirus come up?

A good strategy is to give kids concrete activities to do such as practicing handwashing and applying hand sanitizer. If they’re old enough, it might be good to ask your kids to help clean household surfaces every so often. These activities reinforce that they’re doing their part to also help slow the germ down, and give doctors time to make the medicines that we need.

It’s also important to maintain as much normalcy and structure as possible in their lives: breakfast, brushing their teeth, making their bed in the morning, getting dressed, learning, playing.

You can’t get together in person for a planned birthday party, but you can call their friends on FaceTime. Gaming also allows kids to play together, even if they’re not in the same room. Technology has evolved so much, and allows us to be in touch without literally being in touch.

Do conversations and activities change depending on your child’s age?

Yes. It’s important to do all of these things in a developmentally appropriate way.

Little ones need less information. You can say that everyone in the community is working to help stop the spread of a germ, and while you’re doing this, you might even want to draw a picture of what a germ looks like.

Middle and high schoolers are going to need to be in touch with their friends. This is the age group that might enjoy those opportunities to game virtually with each other. It’s important to validate their need for social connection.

I’ve heard of families who have decided to separately self-quarantine for two weeks so that at the end of those two weeks, they can meet up, and be in touch and have dinner. Get creative that way!

Older adolescents might be feeling as though they’re in suspended animation. They need to be reminded of ways to keep their momentum going forward, whether in their schooling or sports. Validate that this isn’t going to be a fun time, but let’s figure out a way to set some goals and chip away at them.

I think parents have a really big role to play. As they strike the balance between fear, worry, concern and problem solving and healthy coping, their children will too.

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