Talking to your children about the COVID-19 pandemic

I was chirpily reminding my primary school-aged children to wash their hands before eating when my 14-year-old chipped in with: “And if you don’t, you might get coronavirus! Like lots of people in China and Italy!”

Definitely not the way I would have discussed COVID-19 with my five-year-olds, but it made me wonder, what is the best way to talk about this health crisis with our children?

Looking for some guidance, I spoke with Perth psychologist Dr Marny Lishman who shared some useful tips and ideas. She suggested that many of our children will be feeling stressed and anxious right now. This not only because of the virus and the threat of illness but because their world has been turned upside down.

Schools are moving towards remote learning (and therefore children are having to spend all day every day at home with mum and/or dad) and all the ‘fun stuff’ has been cancelled or postponed.

My elder son has had all his sport and inter-school debating cancelled, while the school production he’s been rehearsing so hard for has been postponed. Other kids I know have had major international competitions cancelled. Children all over the world have seen their activities and programs cancelled or postponed and have lost the routine and normality in their lives.

And of course, there are no play dates, parties or, as the Prime Minister recently declared, no public gatherings of more than two people. Even the playgrounds and skate parks are off-limits.

Fortunately, at least so far, my 14-year-old seems to be taking all the limitations in his youthful stride.

“I hate coronavirus, but we have to be stoisistic,” he said to me as we sat outside with homemade ‘takeaway’ hot drinks. I stifled a giggle and said, “I think you mean stoic”.

But Dr Lishman said some teens may externalise some of these feelings through anger and irritability rather than calm discussion, while others may internalise their feelings and become withdrawn.

Her advice for parents is that we acknowledge and normalise how they are feeling, allowing them to express frustration and disappointment about all the changes to their lives, within certain boundaries of course.

I let my elder son vent his disappointment to me and he’s old enough to have an intelligent conversation about what’s happening.

I’ve found my younger children a bit trickier – especially when trying to juggle working from home with them at home. I’m trying to keep them on a similar (though very flexible) schedule at home as they would follow at school, in the hopes of keeping some routine for them.

Another useful strategy Dr Lishman shared was to provide some sort of perspective for our children. We are being bombarded with worst-case scenarios through the media now, but as parents, we can try to balance that out with some good news or good stories from the past. 

For instance, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine and governments around the world are doing their utmost to control the virus. Dr Lishman said this type of discussion with a parent will make children feel more safe and secure.

There is also an opportunity here to chat about what we can and what we can’t control.

It can be one of those discussions that have relevance for many aspects of our lives and Dr Lishman reminded me that the more teens feel in control the better they feel.

I’ve also realised it’s important to be calm and positive with younger kids in particular.

My primary school-aged children were a bit unsettled over the weekend and I wondered if maybe it was because I was constantly telling them to sanitise their hands while we were unsuccessfully trying to find some pasta and toilet paper at a crowded supermarket full of other stressed people.

We need to remember that these next level hygiene measures, social distancing and spending more time together in our homes is new to us all. We therefore must be kind to each other and extra patient with our children as we all work together to get through this crazy time.

-Written by a TC parent