Preventing Anxiety When Discussing COVID-19 With Your Child

Man and child on a walk

As schools wrap up their virtual graduations and many parents settle into new routines with makeshift home offices, some have started to worry about the best forms of communication with their child about the novel coronavirus.

The constantly-evolving information surrounding COVID-19 is daunting even for adults, which can make relaying that information to children seem overwhelming.

No parent wants to inspire anxiety in their child, and updates occur so regularly that it can be hard to know what is relevant to children and what is too much information. Finding balance in this can be difficult, leaving mothers and fathers asking the question: how do I talk to my child about COVID-19, and how much should they know?

Discuss Their Feelings
Knowing how your kids are feeling is always a major priority, but now more than ever, it’s important to be on the same page. When Sarah Mallard Wakefield, M.D., chair for Psychiatry with Texas Tech Physicians, spoke with KCBD recently about anxiety in children during these uncertain times, she encouraged parents to talk to their children. Kids who are acting out, or who seem upset, might just need their parents to acknowledge them by asking them what’s going on or what’s bothering them.

“Especially if you’ve been talking about what’s going on,” said Wakefield. “If you’ve been exhibiting your anxieties or you’ve had the news on, and you think that they might have heard something that stressed them out—ask them about it.”

Wakefield explained that a child who appears anxious or acts out is not necessarily seriously troubled. If children are acting stressed, it could be simply due to a lack of routine.

“Very few people are typically with their kids all day every day at home, so when you and kids are not changing routines, everyone is going to act out a little bit,” Wakefield pointed out. “Your kiddo’s tantrum about something may mean more that they’re not in some kind of routine than that they’re really distressed.”

How Much to Talk About the Virus
While it might be tempting to shelter your kids from COVID-related content entirely, Wakefield discouraged that for children who are old enough to process the information.

“When they are old enough to ask about it, they are old enough to hear an answer,” said Wakefield.

However, it might be important to limit your child’s exposure to content surrounding this virus.  

“Information without the ability to act on the information can cause even more worry and anxiety,” Wakefield explained. “Kids often don’t have a lot of ability to act on this information.”

Wakefied offered advice for successfully regulating the information your child receives, saying that the information should be reassuring, and should come from a child’s parents—not from outside sources.

“You want to be the person answering your kid’s questions,” said Wakefield. “They need to know that their parents have it handled and will do what’s appropriate to protect them. But they really don’t need to be sitting around and watching the news.”

Finding More Guidance
Parents who need an example or starting point might look to Wakefield’s description of what she tells her own children:

“How I explain it to my kids is I say: ‘There is a new virus going around—and we have dealt with viruses for a really long time—but because this one is brand new, it can spread really fast and people can all get it at the same time. We’re trying to prevent people from getting it at the same time, so everybody’s trying to stay home.’”

Additionally, for those who still feel lost when handling their child’s anxiety, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a volume of information specifically pertaining to children’s mental health during this time, including what they can do to help prevent the spread of germs.

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