It’s okay to be scared: Talking about COVID-19 with your kids

illustration of a parent talking to a chikd
(Illustration: Patrick Bibbins/Boston Children's)

Images and stories of the global COVID-19 pandemic surround us, and it’s normal for kids to have questions. There’s no easy way to talk to children about it, but doing so can help them better understand this and other things that might scare them. Here are some tips to help you have those conversations, from the experts on the COVID-19 Resilience Team in Boston Children’s Department of Psychiatry.

Strike the right tone. While there’s still much we don’t know about COVID-19, it’s best to focus your conversations on what we do know and what we can do now, such as washing our hands and staying at home to help keep each other safe while we learn more about the new coronavirus. Kids are far more likely to understand and feel safer when you talk in a calm setting without any distractions. Be honest but positive and hopeful.

Be open. Some children may come to you for guidance about scary things, while others may not. Don’t be afraid to start or continue conversations about the events happening now, as even quiet children may want to share their feelings and concerns.

Be present. Children benefit from an adult devoting extra time and paying closer attention to them. This extra time can also allow you to notice and share in the happy moments in life. And don’t forget to schedule time for your kids to check in with their friends, who can help support them too.

Monitor screen time. Many children have now increased internet access. Monitor what they read and watch to make sure the content is age appropriate. Check in with them regularly about the information they see online to ensure accuracy and resolve misperceptions.

Empower them. Some children may want to know what they can do to help. Encourage them to touch base with elderly neighbors by calling or waving to them. Kids can also write letters of support to health care professionals and emergency personnel. Some may be able to sew cloth masks for others. Get creative and give back!

Talking with younger kids about COVID-19

Safety may be a younger child’s biggest concern. When they ask if they are safe, keep your answers simple and with few details. Reassure them with information about the health and well-being of family members. If appropriate, provide information about the medical care loved ones are receiving and the steps taken to get them well.

Young children benefit from hearing information in simple terms, focusing on key facts and how they relate to your family. Try not to be frustrated if you have to repeat information. This pandemic is scary, and their brain doesn’t understand or retain information like an adult’s brain. Remind them of information as needed.

Talking with older kids and teens about COVID-19

Older children are able to discuss world events on a more sophisticated level, but they still need emotional support and reassurance about their safety. Start the discussion by asking them what they know and listen to their responses. Afterwards, explain what they may have missed or understood incorrectly — calmly, and with as much or as little detail as you think would help.

Talking with kids with special needs about COVID-19

Children with special needs and different abilities may need extra support and attention from you. Those with autism spectrum disorders may benefit from social stories and visual schedules to help to understand and learn. Children with ADHD may need extra reminders and clear schedules within the home. Children with chronic medical conditions may have greater concerns about their health. You can help reassure them by reviewing the steps being taken to keep them safe, such as virtual visits, staying home, and protocols for how you can respond if they need medical attention. Seek guidance and additional support from your medical providers and school team.

Get more answers about Boston Children’s response to COVID-19.

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