In recent months, more children have been diagnosed with COVID-19. With this increase in diagnoses comes an increase in questions from parents about how to talk to their children about the virus and how to address children’s feelings of worry and guilt if they do get sick.
Children who don’t have the virus have questions about what COVID-19 is and how they can stay safe. Meanwhile, children who do have the virus have concerns about potentially spreading it to their friends and family.
In both cases, honest and open communication can go a long way in lessening children’s fears and worries. When you do talk to your children, try to remain as positive and upbeat as possible because children internalize our anxiety.
Talking about COVID-19 with Children
One constant about the year-long COVID-19 pandemic, is the new information that continues to flood in. As your children continue to have questions about the newest news, let them steer the conversation. Gently ask what questions they have and get a sense of what they already know about COVID-19. When you give answers, use basic, age-appropriate, factual language. And if you don’t know the answers, it’s okay to say you don’t know but will find out.
Make sure children understand what COVID-19 is at a basic level: A virus that can spread to others, just like a cold or the flu. Explain it is a new virus so even though we are about a year into the pandemic, there remain lots of unknowns.
Emphasize how your family is taking steps to prevent the spread, including maintaining a 6-foot distance from others, washing hands and wearing face masks. When children know they can play a role in slowing the spread, they feel empowered.
As parents, we must watch our language when we talk to children about COVID-19. Choose words carefully, avoiding words that have negative connotations, assign blame or lead to stigma.
For example, it’s okay to say, “Samantha has COVID-19.” But refrain from saying Samantha is a “COVID victim” or a “COVID suspect” or a “COVID case.” Avoid language that dehumanizes.
We also suggest you say that someone “got” or “contracted” COVID-19 rather than saying someone “spread” or “transmitted” the virus to someone else. Avoid words that assign blame.
When telling children someone they know has the virus, don’t dwell on how the person might have gotten it. Don’t imply that the person may have done something wrong. Instead, focus on what you can do together to help lift the person’s spirits, whether that’s sending a meal, planning a video call or drawing a card.
If Your Child Gets COVID-19
Children who test positive for COVID-19 may worry about their own health, and be scared of spreading the virus to friends and families. They may feel they are to blame for shutting down a school and disrupting other people’s routines.
Acknowledge and validate children’s fears, and ask them to tell you more about their feelings. Explain that you understand their frustration and recognize that the situation is tough. Explain that even though we try our best to stay safe, sometimes we do get sick. Emphasize it’s not our fault and we’re not bad people. Sometimes things truly are out of our control.
Reflect back to children what you hear them saying. You can say, “I hear you think you are to blame for the school closing. Is that right?” Then explain we did our best to avoid Covid-19, but things don’t always turn out the way we want.
Recognize that guilt is a natural emotion, and shame can be associated with guilt. Children may say they are feeling sad or helpless when what they are actually feeling is guilt and shame. Helping them work through those feelings and framing them as natural is very important. Encourage children to get their feelings out in the open by sharing their feelings with a family member, writing about their feelings or drawing a picture. Working through these feelings helps children process emotions and eventually accept the situation.
If feelings of guilt or shame persist, consider reaching out to a therapist or pediatrician.
If a child tests positive for COVID-19, create an environment in the household where blame is not associated with the virus. Explain that as a family, we’re taking precautions to prevent the spread within our home and to our friends. Discuss safety measures, such as mask wearing in the home, sanitizing surfaces, eating from paper plates and not sharing bathrooms, if possible.
Regarding children’s personal health concerns, explain the likelihood of them getting very sick is very small, and that you as a parent will do everything possible to make sure they get any needed medical help.
Children should not be kept socially isolated if they get COVID-19. Even if you’re keeping distance between siblings and parents within the home, consider creative ways to bring everyone together, whether that’s a virtual movie night, virtual game night or virtual dance party, with family members using video within the house to be together.
Also, encourage children who have COVID-19 to stay connected with their friends by talking on the phone or video chatting. This is important not only for your child to feel in touch, but also an important way to send a message to your child’s friends that your child is still the same kind, generous, caring person, not just “a kid with COVID.” (Though we do recommend children stay connected, we urge parents to keep an eye on your child’s social media usage and TV habits, as too much social media or TV can lead to increased anxiety.)
If your child has a friend who has COVID-19, encourage your child to send cards, prepare a meal or donate to charities that focus on helping those who have limited resources handle to the pandemic. These actions are empowering, supportive and send a message to children who are sick that they are not alienated.