How to Talk to Children About the Coronavirus Pandemic
by Center for Loss | Mar 19, 2020 | Articles
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
As the coronavirus spreads across North America and our daily lives are transformed, we all must be aware of the need for good mental-health care. Obviously, it’s a stressful time. Families are confined to their homes. School is canceled. Many businesses are closed. Workers are being laid off en masse, causing financial distress. And then there is the illness itself, COVID-19. Will we or someone we love become critically ill or even die? We are all naturally worried about the “what ifs” and “what nexts.”
The youngest among us are not immune to all of this stress. They sense it in the adults around them, and they see it on social media and other sources of information. Their own day-to-day routines have been completely disrupted.
When it comes to painful, complex realities, it can be difficult to know how much we should share with children. Many people have an instinct to protect kids. But as someone who has worked with and advocated for grieving children for many decades, I’ve learned that what they really need is honesty combined with steadfast care.
Here are a few foundational dos and don’ts.
Follow the child’s lead
Pay attention to what the child seems curious or worried about. For younger children, these concerns may manifest through their play rather than directly. You don’t need to volunteer a lot of information. Instead, invite them to ask questions. And try saying just a little at a time. Children are often satisfied with short answers and small “doses” of information. When they want to know more, they’ll let you know, especially if you are someone who is always straight with them.
Talk openly and honestly to children about what is happening
It’s important to be honest with children about difficult circumstances. In fact, I often say that children can cope with what they know, but they can’t cope with what they don’t know. Be factual. Talk to them about social distancing and that it’s necessary to keep people safe. Explain to them that it’s mostly elderly people who are at risk of getting really sick or dying. If finances are an issue, it’s good to talk to them about that too. If someone in your family has been affected by the virus, keep the child updated. And if your family finances are being stressed, as they are for so many people right now, try not to overburden your children with this challenge. It’s OK to let them know about the need to curtail unnecessary spending, for example, but also keep in mind that financial issues are grown-up issues. We must be careful not to make children over-worry about this or feel responsible.
Use developmentally appropriate language
Use simple, concrete language when you talk to children about the pandemic. It’s OK to use the words “coronavirus” and “pandemic,” because children are hearing those terms, but you will need to explain them in ways that they will understand.
Share your feelings
As I said, we are all naturally worried about and disoriented over the pandemic. Circumstances are changing rapidly from day to day, and the future is unknown. Children who spend time with you will pick up on your anxiety, so it’s essential to tell them what you’re worried about. If you don’t, they are likely to imagine even worse scenarios–or think that they are somehow to blame or at risk. And it’s also important that you practice good self-care to manage any severe anxiety you yourself may be having. If your anxiety levels are too high, theirs will be, too.
Understand magical thinking
Young children are susceptible to what’s called “magical thinking.” They may believe that their thoughts and behaviors can cause bad things to happen. If they didn’t want to talk to Grandma the last time they saw her, for example, and she gets sick, they may secretly believe they caused or contributed to her sickness. So be attuned to any feelings of guilt or shame the children in your care may be hiding, and explain clearly to them that none of this is their fault.
Be patient, kind, and reassuring
Most of all what children need is reassurance that they are being cared for and that their family and others they care about are safe.
Routines help children feel safe, so if their daily routine has been turned upside-down, it’s important to create a new routine. Even if you’re stuck at home, you can still have breakfast together at a certain time and follow a daily schedule. Keeping evening rituals consistent is also essential. And while all of this is going on, try extra hard to be patient and kind. I know it’s extremely challenging to manage children patiently when school and activities are not there to help share the “it takes a village” burden, but keep in mind that your children will likely have strong memories of this strange interlude in their lives, as will you. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to be caring, consistent, and honest.
It’s also important to emphasize to children that lots and lots of grown-up doctors, scientists, and government workers across the world are working to solve the problem. It is our responsibility, not children’s. We are working hard on treatments and vaccines as well as ways to help families who need help. We will get through this.
And I hope you will take advantage of any extra time you have during the quarantine to use for cuddles, hugs, and play. Physical closeness and care go a long way in helping children feel safe and loved.
About the Author
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator, and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Among his many bestselling books are Healing A Child’s Grieving Heart and Finding the Words: How to Talk with Children and Teens about Death, Suicide, Homicide, Funerals, and Other End-of-Life Matters. To order Dr. Wolfelt’s books and for more information, visit www.centerforloss.com
Helping Children with Grief
Parents and caregivers worry about the children – how do I tell them about the death? How do I help them? How much should I protect them? Children are amazingly resilient and often teach us about how to handle grief.
How do I tell them?
Tell them in gentle but concrete words. Using phrases such as “She has gone on a long trip,” “He went to sleep,” or “He passed away” can give a child the impression that the deceased will one day return or that it’s not safe to go to sleep. Children will fill in unanswered questions with wild ideas – maybe the loved one “left” because of something they did or said. Use facts without unnecessary elaboration – “He was very sick and the doctors did everything they could to keep them alive.” “She died in a car accident.” Children will ask for more information when they are ready to handle it.
Let the child know that it’s OK to cry.
Often adults will want to shield children from tears and unintentionally give the message that tears are bad. If a child never sees anyone grieve, they may feel that their loved one is not missed or was not loved.
Children do not need to be sheltered from funerals and similar ceremonies.
Children need to say good-bye. Adults can send the wrong message by not allowing children to be a part of the family at wakes and funerals. The children’s understanding level and age should be taken into consideration – forcing a child to be at on open casket funeral or to speak at a funeral can be as traumatic as not offering the opportunity to do so if they wish.
Children do not show their grief in the same manner as adults.
Children will often regress to younger behaviors – thumb sucking, bed wetting, whining, or having temper tantrums – in an effort to let adults know their needs. This is a normal attempt to go to a “safer time” and is their way of letting adults know they need extra love and assurance. Children will sometimes appear to show no emotion; they play and act like nothing has happened. This “dosing” of emotion is their way of not being overwhelmed by the pain of losing someone. Avoid shaming a child to “act their age” or “be a big girl/strong little man.”
Allow the child to share memories and stories.
Part of the grief journey is acknowledging the death and moving from present tense language to past tense/memory language. Allowing this helps to reassure that the positive, loving memories do not change the relationship the child had with their loved one.
Notify teachers, pediatricians and caretakers of the death.
These people are important in the child’s life and can help support them. Open communication lines will also help identify if extra support is needed for the child. Seek guidance from others if counseling would be helpful to the child and family.
Children are resilient and can teach adults much about handling grief. Support, love and clear age-appropriate language will help a child with their grief.