Talking to children and young people about COVID-19

Like adults, children are navigating something they have never experienced before. Finding the right way to talk to them about COVID-19 can help protect children and reduce their fear.

How do you explain what COVID-19 is to a child?

Children have a right to know what is going on, but as adults we have a responsibility to protect them from distress. There are ways to talk to children that will help limit their fears and address their concerns.

  • Use age appropriate language.
  • Show you are listening and their concerns are important to you.
  • Explain you haven’t been through anything like this either but you know the world will keep spinning and the sun will come up each day.
  • Remind them you are there to look after them.
  • Tell them if we listen carefully to advice and put one foot in front of another, it will be okay.
  • Let your children know that we are in the best possible position to fight this disease.
  • Explain that Australia has done a very good job of controlling the virus. The experts here are being guided by other countries where they have been though this and are now getting over it. We will too.
  • Remind them that there have been pandemics across history, the experts know what to do, and the disease will run its course (as all epidemics do).

Words you can use to talk to young children about COVID-19

It can be hard to know how to explain COVID-19. These are some ideas you can put into your own words to suit the age and stage of your child.

  • COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new germ or bug.
  • Germs are tiny organisms that live in our environment and can make us sick if they get in our bodies. 
  • You cannot see germs with your eyes (only under a microscope). They are a bit like chilli. You cannot see chilli on your hands but if you lick your fingers or touch your eyes you will know it is there!
  • The germ that causes COVID-19 spreads easily from person to person and infects the breathing system, our nose, throat and lungs.
  • It is passed from person to person through tiny droplets when people cough or sneeze.
  • These droplets can be breathed in by others – which is why we should try not to get too close to others, and cover our sneezes and coughs with our arm or a tissue. Then wash our hands.  
  • The droplets might land on surfaces, like phones, door handles, tables and hands. If we shake someone’s hand or touch these things and then touch our eyes, mouth or nose, the germ can get inside us.
  • We need to try not to touch our face, avoid shaking hands and wash our hands often, especially before eating (when we put our fingers to our mouth).
  • Most kids won’t get very sick if they get COVID-19. If they do it will be a bit like getting a cold.
  • The disease is more serious in old people and those that have other sicknesses already. 
  • We all need to do what we can to stop the germ spreading to keep it away from old/sick people.  

How children may react to the COVID-19 outbreak

Children depend on familiar routines. They like to wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, play with friends. 

When an emergency or pandemic like COVID-19 interrupts this routine, children may become anxious, confused, or frightened. These feelings may be expressed in a variety of ways.

•    Reactions from clinginess to withdrawal.
•    Increased shyness through to aggressiveness.
•    Return to outgrown behaviours, like thumb-sucking or carrying a cuddly toy.

How to keep up routines and normal life as much as possible

As a parent, you can keep up routines at home. If it is a school day, then get kids up, dressed and doing school work by 9 am.

Encourage them to use mindfulness apps, such as smiling mind, to help them work through the stress of the uncertainty.

Limit their exposure to news coverage and adult conversations about the outbreak.

Don’t forget about your own needs. Keep up meditation, yoga and exercise.

For some really practical advice, specifically answering questions from children, aimed at younger audiences and packaged in interactive and engaging ways, try the following videos and e-books.

Great video from the BBC’S Newsround program worth a watch
This video of NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Dr Michelle Dickinson (NanoGirl) and Chief Science Advisor Dr Juliet Gerrard

When will life get back to normal and what will it be like?

The governments around Australia are taking different actions to stop the virus spreading, depending on how many people have COVID-19 in their state or territory.

This means that the rules around what we can and can’t do might differ, depending on which part of the country we live in.

We have all done really well to slow the spread of the virus, but it is important we continue to follow the expert’s advice on what we can and can’t do. We also need to be flexible and understand that the rules might need to get stricter again if more people get sick with the virus.

Life will get back to normal again, but right now we aren’t sure how quickly it will happen.  

Spread kindness 

It is important to give kids a sense of being in control. Giving children meaningful ways to help others will help them and others.

  • Get children helping to make your family plans for self-isolating. 
  • Check in on their friends or talk to elderly relatives who are self-isolating via phones or video calls.
  • Look out for community volunteering opportunities, such as helping the rest of the family to pick up shopping, deliver medicine or supply food parcels to neighbours (as long as they are not in a risk group or self-isolated).
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