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How to talk to your child about coronavirus

As the coronavirus and COVID-19 situation rapidly evolves, it's important to talk to your child about how to stay safe by practicing preventative measures. It's also important to open up a dialogue with your family about the situation and be ready to answer questions about this unprecedented situation.

As things continue to change, it's normal to not have all the immediate answers to share with your children. But by starting a conversation, you can keep your family informed on all the latest updates and help calm any worries that might arise.

As our community reacts to this situation in various ways, it's likely your child has noticed this change. They may have questions or worries about the current situation, or they may not be interested. Both reactions are normal, and you can follow your child's lead when it comes to introducing the topic.

Find the right time to talk and let your child guide the conversation

With schools closed across the state, your child may have more questions than ever as their daily routine is interrupted. Use this time to talk to your children about what is going on. Find a time that is free from distractions, when both you and your child can focus on the conversation. If there is a time of day where you typically check in with your child or ask about their day, use this as an opportunity to introduce the subject. It's likely that your child may already have heard information about the situation from friends or the media. Find out what your child already knows about the coronavirus before sharing any additional information. This can give you the opportunity to correct any misinformation they may have heard and clarify the situation with corrected facts. Start the conversation with a question that is relevant to your child's age and comprehension level.

For younger children, ask "Have you heard anyone talking about a sickness going around lately?" or "Have you heard the word coronavirus or people talking about being sick recently? Can you tell me what you know?"

For older children, you might ask, "Are your friends talking about coronavirus? What are they saying? How are you feeling about the situation?"

Offer comfort and calmness in a time of uncertainty

News headlines can offer feelings of worry and panic. Focus on the facts and help your child feel safe.

  • Emphasize the notion that people around them are focused on prioritizing their health and safety, and explain that this may mean certain aspects of daily life are interrupted.
  • Speak calmly and be truthful, but avoid topics that may incite increased feelings of anxiety, such as contagion numbers or death rates.
  • The world impact of the coronavirus could be overwhelming for some children. Localize facts and figures for your child so that they can understand what is happening in their own community.
  • If your child asks a question that you do not know how to answer, use it as an opportunity to learn the answer together. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website includes the most up-to-date information that most outside groups rely on, so check there first.

Mesa Public Schools is consistently sharing updates and information on our website. Make sure you and your child are checking mpsaz.org/beprepared to stay informed on all changes to the Mesa community due to the coronavirus.

Explaining the virus and its symptoms

You can explain the coronavirus by relating it to the symptoms of the cold or the flu. If your child, or someone they know, has experienced either of those illnesses recently, you can use this to help explain how those infected with coronavirus might be feeling.

Symptoms of coronavirus are currently listed as fever, cough and shortness of breath. Precautions being taken are similar to those of the cold, flu and other respiratory viruses, so if your child is already aware how they can prevent illness during cold and flu season, emphasize and encourage the importance of those measures (i.e., hand washing, coughing and sneezing into the elbow, sanitization of common areas).

Encourage your child to speak to you about any changes in how they're feeling. Emphasize that this combination of symptoms may not always lead to a coronavirus diagnosis, but it's important to voice any changes in health so that proper testing and treatment may be provided.

Accepting and calming your child's fears

Most of us have experienced some feelings of fear or anxiety regarding the impact of the coronavirus. It's natural for children to worry, too. They may worry about being infected with the illness itself or those around them becoming ill. You can explain to your child that the rates of infection for children are not as high as those for adults and that the adults around them are also taking the necessary steps to keep themselves healthy.

The impact of the virus on the elderly community may have your child worried for some of their family members. If possible, keep your child in contact with those family members via text message, or phone or video call to reassure them of their safety. During this contact, older family members can discuss with your child the ways in which they are keeping themselves healthy, further encouraging your child to do the same.

News stories can share important updates with the general population but they can also incite increased worry in your family. Put news stories in context to your child's community, and mainly share information that impacts them directly. For example, an increase in death rates in a foreign country may not be necessary for your child to know. If possible, explore news stories together so that you know exactly what information your child is learning and you can answer any questions directly.

Reinforce preventative measures

Preventative precautionary measures and a heightened awareness of germs is a good way to help your child feel more in control of their health. Emphasize the importance of daily habits your child is already familiar with, such as washing hands and eating a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables.

With school closures happening across the state, your child's daily routine may be interrupted and timed events like washing hands before lunch may be forgotten. While your child is at home, create a schedule that involves regular hand washing times and sanitization of surfaces. If you can keep the schedule similar to that of their regular school day, your child may feel more comfortable and will be more prepared to continue healthy habits when they return to school.

Tips for a preventative measure schedule during school closures:

  • Wash hands after using the restroom.
  • Wash hands before and after eating.
  • Wash hands after playing outside or in a common area.
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow and immediately wash your hands afterward.
  • Clean and sanitize common areas and frequently used surfaces such as tables, toilets, door knobs and light switches.
  • When cleaning or sanitizing parts of your home, encourage your child to help and explain the importance of disinfection.
  • Diet is an important part of preventing illness. When possible, make sure your child's food contains a balanced diet with an increased amount of fruits and vegetables. Use mealtimes to discuss the importance of diet in fighting off disease and infection.
  • Sleep and adequate rest is also a major factor in both preventing and treating illnesses such as coronavirus. Use bedtime as a reminder to your child that a good night's sleep can help keep them healthy.
  • Be a good role model. Children often learn by example, and seeing adults take preventative measures can encourage children to do the same. You can wash your hands together at various times throughout the day to reinforce the community concept.

Kindness and community support

Though this situation is new territory for many of us and things are constantly changing, your child may find comfort in the knowledge that their community is working to improve the situation. Teach your child about the things happening in your community that are working to keep you safe. Doctors and nurses in hospitals are prepared to treat those who get sick and scientists are working to contain the spread of the virus and develop a vaccine.

Organizations and groups in your community may also be implementing programs and plans to support the community during times of stress. Mesa Public Schools is offering free emergency pickup sack lunches to children 18 and younger in parking lots of district elementary schools. Food and supply shortage at grocery stores can mean many members of our community are going without basic needs.

Emphasize the importance of kindness with your child and reach out to your community to see if anyone is in need. If you have extra supplies you can share with the elderly, or parents with babies or young children, take the opportunity to support your community while teaching your child about sharing.

Keep the conversation going

Check in regularly with your child and encourage the discussion of any new thoughts or feelings that may arise as the situation changes. If you have multiple children, consider scheduling a "family check-in" every day to see how each family member is doing.

Expand the conversation into a broader topic of overall health and wellness in your child's daily life and incorporate educational activities into your child's day if they are home due to school closures.

Opening up the conversation of coronavirus within your family can also create an open dialogue when it comes to other current events. Speaking openly and calmly about this situation could encourage your child to do the same in the future.

Adapted from kidshealth.org.