How to talk to children about COVID-19
Published 9:48 am Thursday, March 19, 2020
As the county buckles down and addresses the concerns amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), businesses and schools are closing. Many families’ routines have been altered drastically and parents might be left wondering how to talk with their children about the virus and ease their anxieties.
Michelle Dipboye Sames, clinical supervisor at National Youth Advocate Program, said parents shouldn’t shy away from talking about issues like this with their children.
“If they ask a question, they’re old enough to have an answer,” she said. “When children ask a specific question, they are old enough to have an answer to increase their understanding.”
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How parents answer the question might change based on their child’s age, but the parents should be prepared to answer.
“Sometimes parents are fearful that if they reply to tough questions, it will make it harder on their kids,” she said. “Actually, if you don’t answer, then children frequently create their own answer which can be scarier than what we are actually facing.”
She said parents should educate themselves on the issue using reputable source like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kentucky COVID-19 response website at kycovid19.ky.gov and adjust their answers to each specific child.
For example, preschoolers might not fully understand the details of the virus, but they may still be able to tell that there is something different happening in their life and that those around them are worried or anxious, she said.
“Preschoolers understand when adults are upset but they don’t understand why they are upset,” she said. “Explain to preschoolers in terms that they will comprehend that we are going to stay at home and spend family time until the sickness goes away. Reassure them that they will be fine.”
She said one key to easing fears and anxieties will be to keep children and teens on a routine.
“Plan a routine for your children that includes daily activities,” she said. “Have a regular time to get up and get dressed for the day, a time for school work, free time and a scheduled family time with activities. Remember to keep a regular bed time. We all benefit from a schedule that allows us to understand what comes next. This can provide stability when other parts of life are chaotic.”
Another way to help children is being intentional about spending quality time together.
“Find some ways to spend time together,” she said. “Pull out some board games. Make some cookies together, anything that you can do to make time for each other. Consider a community service activity such as donating food or paper products with your children. Your children could also make phone calls to older family members and friends who would benefit from the social contact.”
She said some signs that children or teens might not be coping with the changes include trouble sleeping, nightmares, bedwetting and any behaviors that are out of the ordinary, including if they become especially disruptive or especially quiet.
“Watch for changes in their normal behavior,” she said. “If you see behavior changes that are out of character for your child or teen like nightmares, over activity, mood disruption or withdrawal, this is a sign that they may be upset and in need of assistance.”
Parents or families that face challenges during this time shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help, she said.
“That’s part of why we’re staying operational,” she said. “At the National Youth Advocate Program we are open and providing services daily. We will continue to help people of all ages who have mental health concerns through secure Telehealth. Telehealth is accessed through a free app which is simple to manage.”
NYAP offers a variety of mental health services, including individual, family and group therapy; trauma-focused behavioral treatment, play therapy, substance abuse counseling, school-based treatment and more.
“You can also reach out to your pediatrician’s office and they can connect you with resources,” she said. “School staff are still working and they can help point to providers that might be of assistance. We are one resource, but there are others out there, too.”
There is a Mental Health Resource guide posted on the Clark County Health Department website that all community members can consult, she said.
Parents should be mindful as they look for child care or leave their children at home during this time, too, she said.
“This is a hard time on families with schools and child care closing,” she said. “We want to be careful not to leave children by themselves until they are old enough. Also make sure teenagers are emotionally OK to be by themselves. There are many children and teens who are anxious right now and need the presence of a trusted adult. Reach out to your friend community of adults and work together in small groups to help take care of the kids rather than leave them alone.”
Parents should also find avenues for self-care as they are facing unprecedented stress right now.
“Everyone needs a self-care plan,” she said. “An individualized plan that helps you to lower stress. It might be relaxation or it might be running on the treadmill — something to do to help get rid of the stress and deal with all the changes that you must manage. Parents are experiencing stress because they might be laid off, have trouble buying the groceries, or are struggling to figure out child care. Acknowledge that you need time to breathe, to think and then reach out to your community around you.
“Even though we have to maintain a social distance, we are still a community in Clark County that supports each other and is working together to manage this crisis successfully.”