Coronavirus: Advice on how to talk to your children about it

As a parent, you get used to answering your children’s difficult questions. And as the coronavirus outbreak starts to affect day-to-day life, there may be even more than usual.

Your children will doubtless have picked up on the fact that life’s changing. For example, that they’re spending lots more time at home, haven’t been able to see granny and grandad or can sense mum and dad are anxious.

Your child will have sensed that life is changing around them.

It’s important to acknowledge their worries by being open, clear and honest says Dee Holmes, a Relate counsellor specialising in family, young persons’ and children’s counselling. “Trying to deny it is happening will only increase their anxiety because there will be a mismatch between what you’re saying and what you’re giving out in all your behaviours.”

Here are Dee’s top tips for these challenging conversations…

Choose the right time to talk

Avoid bedtimes when you’re all trying to wind down – but otherwise follow your child’s lead, recommends Dee. “Judge their mood and have a chat when you sense they might be anxious. Casually saying something like ‘I’ve noticed you might be worried, I’m wondering if it’s because you’ve…’ and add an example like ‘not seen granny’. This way you’re allowing them to talk about granny, or their friends or whatever is troubling them.”

Be clear… and let them respond

Stick to the facts and use simple language. Agree on your approach with your partner or other adults living in your house so you present a united front. “Be calm and clear and be age-appropriate: sometimes we can tell children too much. It’s a good idea to start with a statement and see if your children asks more questions,” explains Dee. “It could be something like: ‘There’s this illness and we’re doing all we can to protect each other and work together.’ That might be enough for them. Or they might ask more. But there’s something to be said for saying one clear thing and then pausing to see how they respond.”

Don’t be dismissive

This is really important at any time, but particularly now, says Dee.

Sometimes parents think that they’re feeding worries by acknowledging them. But that’s not true.

"If a child is worried and a parent is saying ‘don’t be silly, don’t worry about it’, it gives them the message that they are not right and it won’t make sense to them if they can see people around them worrying. It can send the message that they shouldn’t believe what they’re feeling.” Things are changing all the time, so be prepared to have ongoing chats: let them know they can come and talk to you.

Channel their worries

Based on what they’re worrying about, see if you can suggest something practical you can do to calm their worries. “So, if they’re concerned about granny, you could suggest a video chat with her, drawing her a picture or if she's nearby, walking to her house and waving at her through the window,” explains Dee.

“If you’re co-parenting and they’re not able to see their mum or dad as regularly, suggest keeping a picture diary of what they’re doing each day so they have something to show them when they do see them again.”

Visit our activities section for plenty of ways to get creative at home.

Chat about what's not changed

When you’re answering their questions or talking through their worries, focus on what’s staying the same, not what’s changing. And if your anxiety levels are spiralling, this might benefit you too.

Children need routines, in fact we all do, so this tip will probably benefit the whole family.

“Your children will still be getting up for breakfast, watching their favourite cartoons and so on," says Dee.

To emphasise this, create a visual structure of the day – a little calendar on the fridge door with pictures of what’s happening so they can see what they’re doing. “Another version of this would be to play ‘what’s next?’ where you create cards with particular things to do pictured on them – and if your children are a little older, giving them the choice about what they’re going to do, so they have a bit of control.”

Further help

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