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How to talk to your children about coronavirus

With kids often struggling to understand the illness and how it spreads around the world, Jenny Stallard asks the experts for advice


Good hygiene: teach your little ones that hand-washing is an important weapon in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak but don’t frighten them

Good hygiene: teach your little ones that hand-washing is an important weapon in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak but don’t frighten them


Dr Michele McDowell

Dr Michele McDowell


Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni


Good hygiene: teach your little ones that hand-washing is an important weapon in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak but don’t frighten them

Whether it's overhearing something on the news or someone talking about it, or succumbing to playground chatter, it's almost impossible to stop your kids hearing about coronavirus.

We adults are aware how to protect ourselves through frequent and careful hand-washing, covering our mouths and noses with a tissue (not your hand) when we sneeze and putting used tissues in the bin immediately.

But for children, fact and fiction can easily blend. And while some might hear of deaths on the radio news while travelling to school in the car, others might have actually been sent home from school or had trips cancelled.

"The younger the child, the more difficult it will be for them to understand the coronavirus," says child psychologist Dr Michele C. McDowell.

"This is for a number of reasons. Children, particularly below the age of 11, are at a critical age for developing their emotional intelligence. During this age range, they develop the skills of emotional regulation, progressing from black and white thinking (for example, something's either wrong or right) to developing an understanding of emotional nuances and the knowledge that how they feel impacts on the interpretation of a situation.

"During this stage of development, children learn to regulate their emotions.

"This is why we often find that younger children can experience extreme emotions, feeling happy one minute and anger or frustration the next.

"They are learning to regulate and understand emotions during each interaction."

Hearing about deaths or new cases can make kids feel confused and anxious.

Telling them things are fine and shielding them from the truth can be more harmful than honest answers, experts agree.

Here's how to deal with their questions and worries...

DO discuss it

"If your children raise the topic, give some time to explore what they've heard about coronavirus. If you don't have time right then, arrange a time together when you can fully discuss how they feel and check their knowledge. Please don't just respond with 'don't worry it'll be fine'," says McDowell.

DON'T lie...

"Children will hear information from a range of sources, such as their friends and the playground. Parents should aim to provide age-appropriate information, such as 'it is true there's a nasty bug around that's a bit like flu and is making people feel unwell - and yes, some people have died'," says McDowell.

"Align it with topics they already know about, like a cold or flu, but also say this is a little different because it is new and people are finding out about it. Check with them they understand by asking them to tell you back in their own words. Ask them if they have any other questions about it."

DO let them know it's an open topic

Today their question might be about hand-washing, tomorrow it could be whether they are at risk. "Let them know they can talk about it again and as many times as they like," advises McDowell. "Use it as an emotional learning opportunity by talking about feelings and emotions that come up around the news, such as sadness and worry."

DO keep things matter-of-fact

"It's important to model a non-panicked response and give information in a matter-of-fact way," says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. "Begin by saying that viruses have always been around and that this is not something to be scared of. A lot of people every year suffer from the flu. While it's important to take precautions, such as washing your hands regularly, this isn't something that is likely to harm them."

DO use your own judgment to talk about deaths

Being honest with a child who wants to talk about deaths that they've heard about depends on the age of the child and their own nature, adds Touroni. Be aware if it could cause them anxiety.

"It's hard for younger children to understand nuances, so I would refrain from mentioning death," Touroni says.

"Likewise, if a child is older and prone to anxiety, it's important not to instil any further sense of fear. If you do decide to tell them, then qualify it with the fact that it's only likely to end in fatality if a person is already unwell or has a weakened immune system."

Belfast Telegraph