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Why You Should Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus

Parent talking to son
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMarch 09, 2020

As news of the recent coronavirus fills the headlines, parents may wonder if they should talk with their kids about it. We want to protect our kids from the anxiety that surrounds this global outbreak, and may try to shield them from information about it. And yet there’s good reason to bring it up with them.

First, they’re probably hearing about it at school from their friends and teachers. If you’re avoiding the subject entirely, or speaking of it in hushed tones when you think they’re not listening, it could fuel their fear that the coronavirus is too terrible to talk about. You can demystify the topic for them by being straightforward—letting them know, for example, that it’s a new type of coronavirus, that the common cold is also a coronavirus, and that scientists are still figuring out how this virus compares to others.

You’ll also be giving them a chance to ask questions they may have, including fears of contracting it themselves. Be sure to listen at least as much as you talk. Let them know that the adults in charge are doing all they can to keep people safe. (Think carefully before sharing any misgivings you might have about how the authorities are handling the outbreak.)

Of course, what you say will depend on the age of the child, and you’ll want to adjust how you talk about it based on their developmental level. It wouldn’t make sense to have an in-depth discussion about the spread of the virus with your two-year-old, but they may ask about changes in the school routine such as washing hands upon arrival (like at our kids’ preschool). You could let them know that there are sicknesses going around and washing hands is a good way to stay healthy.

No matter how old your child is, be direct and matter-of-fact as you discuss it. Aim to be reassuring, without being dishonest. For example, if your child asks if they’re going to catch it, you might tell them that it’s unlikely and you certainly hope they don’t, and discuss effective measures to minimize their risk like appropriate handwashing and steering clear of someone who’s coughing or sneezing. You can also talk about what a typical course of the illness is like, and that most people recover.

If they ask if you’re scared, you might let them know you’re nervous, but avoid confessing your deepest fears, such as, “I’m terrified someone I love will contract it—especially one of my kids!” Like other parents, that is undoubtedly my biggest concern about the coronavirus, but I don’t want to saddle my kids with that knowledge.

Take care not to suggest that they should be terrified. If they don’t seem worried, there’s no need to plant your fear in them. Be especially careful not to try to motivate them with fear—for example, giving them dire warnings if they don’t wash their hands (e.g., “Do you want to die?!”). Fear-based approaches are unlikely to work (remember the “This is your brain on drugs” ad campaign?), and it won’t help their emotional well-being—not to mention your relationship. Meet them where they are instead.

Talking about it with your children also provides an opportunity to show how adults manage fear and uncertainty. Let them know they don’t have to feel like a helpless victim—a sitting duck—as they watch the virus spread throughout the world and see the numbers in the United States growing every day. Rather than focusing on the probability of getting sick, emphasize that you’ll meet any challenges together as a family. Few things are more reassuring than knowing that the story of a life isn’t mostly about whether or not bad things happened, but about how we handled the inevitable problems we faced. Consider how to express this principle to your child, including examples from your own life.

What you model now can serve your child well for the rest of their life, since this virus is surely not the last threat our world will face. This is a chance to demonstrate what it means to embrace uncertainty, to show your kids that the unknown isn’t to be feared—in fact, it’s the very thing that makes life life.

Perhaps the best way to communicate that they don’t need to be afraid is to express that they will be okay, unconditionally. Being okay is bigger than this virus. It means being together and sharing love no matter how long life lasts or what it brings. Focus on who you want to be for each other for as long as you share this life.

I’ve created an e-guide with easy daily practices to help manage stress and anxiety—it’s free when you sign up for my newsletter: “ 10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day .”

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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