How to Talk to Your Kids about Coronavirus

Two young children looking out of a window.

Q&A with Alison Miller

Associate professor of Health Behavior and Health Education

How do we talk about coronavirus and COVID-19 to children, who may not fully understand what is happening? How can parents and guardians ease the concerns of their children during this time that is likely creating stress for all members of the family? 

Alison Miller, associate professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, addresses the ways children show stress and things parents and guardians can do to help them cope.

Are there signs that a child may be struggling with current events?

One important thing to keep in mind is that children—especially young children—may not always be able to articulate their worries clearly into words, so it can sometimes come out in their behavior. For example, you might see your child start to have problems sleeping, having more tantrums or frustration, or regressing in other areas that they may not have struggled with before.

Parents might also notice more clinging behaviors: children not wanting parents to go out of the house, go to work, or leave their presence. Children may develop new fears that might not seem obviously linked to the current crisis but may take the form of nightmares, reluctance to change routines, or reluctance to engage in new activities. They may also experience physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches. These can be signs of stress, worry, or anxiety in children.

As some mental health difficulties like depression and anxiety tend to emerge during the middle school and early teen years, it’s not a bad idea to monitor how your child is doing and offer them an opportunity to talk with someone if you or your child feels like it would be helpful. For teens especially, talking with someone who is not their parent may be welcome. There are a number of resources to help ease these concerns.

How would you recommend talking to children about what is going on?

With kids of any age, you always have to think about how much they know about a situation. They often pick up more than we think they do. They may pick up on words that they don't know the meaning of or think they know the meaning of. And sometimes those words can have a scary meaning—be that the true meaning or the one they made up. So it is important to talk with kids directly about the facts. It is also important to talk with your kids about why and how your family is following social distancing rules, in case they see others who are not doing so.

First, ask questions. What do they know? What do they think about the situation? What have they heard? Take the first step by listening to their perspective before you begin to provide information about the situation. This can sometimes be hard for us because we want to soothe their fears and make it better for them, but it’s important to sit down and listen first. When it comes time to talk, be honest and clear, but try to limit the amount of information you present. You don’t have to cover every nuance. Be sure to let kids know that, although the situation keeps changing, they will be taken care of.

For older children or teenagers who may have a better understanding of the COVID-19 situation, affirming that this is an anxiety-producing situation and that the feelings they’re having are normal can help alleviate their stress. Let them know you’re keeping track of the situation and have regular check-ins about how they are doing and plans for how the family is managing the situation.

How can parents and guardians support feelings of isolation in their children right now?

This isn’t a snow day. It’s important to remain physically distant and practice social distancing (at least 6 feet). Since it is hard to guarantee that kids will keep to this rule if they interact in person, it’s best not to have physical interaction during this time with members other than your household. When children are home from school and away from their friends for an uncertain amount of time, it can feel just as isolating for them as it does for adults. For kids, being physically separated can actually be even more difficult, because so many of their typical interactions are face-to-face, for example in school or in their neighborhood.

However, in similar fashion as adults who are meeting with friends virtually, your kids can too. Set up a virtual play-date for your kids to connect with friends and classmates. For example, older elementary or middle-school aged kids who have access to computers or other devices can use video interfaces like FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or Zoom to have video calls. Kids may be able to connect and play videogames, board games, read, chat, or even exercise together. It may be a good idea for parents to monitor these interactions from afar at first, if possible, to help troubleshoot any technical issues or social dynamics that come up and to make sure kids are staying safe by connecting only with friends they know. Similarly, it could be helpful to provide some structure for these interactions. For example, kids could decide to work on projects such as building or drawing on their own, then share the results with friends during the call. They could also work on longer-term projects together.

It is helpful to be mindful of the ways we manage our own anxiety. Anxiety really can translate to our kids and other kids we may interact with. For example, be conscious of how much news you’re watching and how often you talk about coronavirus with your children. Limiting news consumption is probably a good idea anyway for managing stress, but how we manage our own anxiety and worries can set the stage for how kids will manage their own.

What interventions may be most successful in helping children cope with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Engaging in distracting activities that shift the focus from COVID-19 are great ways to connect and relieve stress for your children.

Ask your kids, “What are some things we can do? What new things are we going to be doing now?” Engaging your kids in how they can help and figuring out new routines around the home can be empowering for children and give them a sense of control during this time. Other activities like writing a letter, having a video call with a grandparent, or helping your child cook a meal can help shift the focus from worry to doing something positive. Of course, it’s always helpful for everyone to pitch in on chores that help out the family—and even the youngest kids can do that!

Like adults, children can partake in physical activity, and they often have extra energy to burn off. While many public playgrounds are closed, consider taking a family walk outside while conducting the recommended social distancing practices. If it’s possible, biking is a good activity that maintains social distance and can allow further exploration from home. There is research showing that being outside and even looking at nature can help calm stress. So as long as it’s safe, try to get outside. Exercising indoors is a possibility for everyone, too.

What resources are available to parents if they need help?

I would be remiss not to mention that parents are also under a good deal of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is experiencing a dramatic change in daily life, and it is taking some adjusting for us all. Parents likely need time to focus on their own work, which can be challenging at the best of times and very difficult at this moment, especially if they have young children at home.

Many schools and businesses are doing a great job of ensuring that kids have everything they need during this time. Food distribution organizations and schools are providing meals to food-insecure families, which is important because not all kids have equal access to healthy environments, food, or opportunities for physical activity and exercise. Schools are also providing technology resources for families who don’t have easy access to these.

Teachers are doing a great job connecting with parents and students virtually to provide resources and materials that help students continue learning even while schools are closed—some for the rest of the school year. While not in the classroom, these activities create connections and help to structure learning for kids at home in a way that could ease some pressure on parents. Research shows that having positive relationships with teachers can be just as important as academic skills when it comes to school engagement, so this is an important way to promote ongoing connection to school and learning during this time. Given that we know educational inequities can increase over the summer when school is out, we want to encourage connections that keep kids engaged with school even if they’re not physically present.

Helpful Resources