Telling children about COVID-19: Advice for parents & those working with children.

As awareness and discussions about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) increase, children may start to feel more worried for themselves and their loved ones. Adults can play a key role in supporting children to understand and make sense of the information they are hearing in a way which reduces worries and feelings of stress. Dr. Marie J. Hill, Chartered Psychologist and Educational Psychologist, and Dr. Michelle L. Byrne, Counselling Psychologist, have created top 10 tips to guide these conversations.

1. Stress – Noticing the Signs

Children look to their primary caregivers to feel safe and secure. If the adults they look to are feeling high levels of stress, they themselves can absorb this stress unintentionally. Stress is a natural human response which evolved as a survival mechanism and is often referred to as the ‘flight/fight/freeze’ response. Stress responses at the right levels can enhance a person’s performance/decisions, yet, we are not built to sustain long periods or overloading levels of stress. If we do not keep stress levels in check, it may have a negative impact on our physical health, mental health, and our ability to make rational decisions. With the vast amount of discussion regarding COVID-19, we can become easily overwhelmed by feelings of stress.

Stress signs will vary from person to person – get to know yours and your child’s. Some people may behave differently than usual. This may include not being able to concentrate on activities you usually enjoy, feeling restless, avoiding people (outside of intentional self-isolation), becoming hypersensitive to touch or noise, loss of appetite, overeating, difficulties sleeping, over-sleeping, or eating unhealthy foods. Some people may have physical reactions to feeling stressed. They may feel their heart beating faster, changes in their body temperature, headaches, increased muscle tension, feeling tearful, and/or feeling sick. Others may find themselves thinking more negatively about themselves e.g. “I’m not doing enough to protect my family”. Get to know your stress signs, but also those of your child’s, and take action when they appear (see below regarding what actions to take).

Self-care is important to managing stress. Try to eat healthily, drink lots of water, take part in activities you enjoy, socialise (even if through technology), go out into nature, and/or exercise. Being kind to yourself will help the body to decrease those stress hormones, which helps reduce your feelings of stress and the stress of the children around you.

2. Fact Check!

With discussion stretching across all forms of communication, from face to face to online interactions, misinformation about COVID-19 is everywhere. Adults need to ensure they have accurate facts from reputable sources so that they are armed with the appropriate knowledge to be able to communicate information to children. It would also be recommended for adults to discuss how some social media stories may be inaccurate or based on rumour.

For current and up to date information regarding COVID-19 in Northern Ireland, please visit the Public Health Agency on

3. Connect

Don’t be afraid to discuss COVID-19 with children.  Naming and normalising the indirect impact of the COVID-19 will help them recognise their feelings and give them a clearer understanding about the facts. Children are aware of the virus, by avoiding these discussions may increase their feelings of stress.  It is important to create space for children to be able to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and to ask questions. Engage with children in an activity they enjoy and ask them what they know as you play. Some children may also prefer different methods of communicating their thoughts and feelings (e.g. drawing), allow your child to express themselves in the way that helps them. It is normal to be worried and scared about not knowing all the answers to their questions. You don’t have to know all the answers. If you don’t know an answer, let them know you don’t know but will try to find out. However, make sure you do try to find out so as to not break trust.

4. Listen and Validate

Adults can be unsure how to they should support children through stressful periods. Letting them know you are there if they need to talk helps them to feel safe and secure. Examples of this would include listening to their thoughts and feelings as it helps them feel valued. Avoid statements like “don’t worry” as these run the risk of minimising their experiences and may make children feel like their thoughts and feelings are not serious or valued. Be realistic, factual, and supportive. Instead use phrases such as “It’s ok to feel [name emotion], I am here to keep you safe” or “I can see that you are feeling [name emotion], I am here with you”.  Some children may require adults to help them name the emotions they are feeling, which will help with their understanding.  Be creative in how you connect with children.  The key to building resilience is relationships! Relationships! Relationships!

5. Explain

Be aware of your child’s chronological and emotional age. Children who are considered vulnerable and/or have complex needs may have a lower emotional age to their chronological age. When children ask you questions, use words and explanations that are appropriate for your child’s chronological and emotional age. For example children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) or those who have experienced trauma, may have a significantly lower emotional age to their chronological age and may require explanations tailored to a younger age group. Only use the information which you have properly fact checked to ensure the correct information is given and that you deliver it at a level which appropriate for them. Remember children are children, do not discuss the level of detail as you would with an adult. Some children may require visual aids to support their understanding.

6. Reassure

Children can feel responsible for situations which are not within their control, especially if there is not a clear plan in place for tackling COVID-19. It is important for adults to communicate with children that they, and other adults, are managing the situation. It is vital for adults to be calm and talk at a slow pace, as children will not only pick up on stress through what you say, but how you say it. In essence, you are communicating to children that they can continue to be children.

7. Familiarity

During times of heightened stress, it is important to stick to your routine, as uncertainty and unpredictability can increase feelings of stress.  COVID-19 is having different effects on daily life, depending on where you are living. Some countries are on complete lockdown, and some with varying degrees of restrictions. When daily routines suddenly change, this brings a sense of unpredictability. This level of unpredictability can result in children feeling not safe or secure. Where possible, try and continue the routines for children that are within your control. Sticking to routine is a way of maintaining some predictability during these uncertain times. Sticking to regular meal times and bedtime routines can help maintain a sense of predictability and structure to the day.  For any disrupted routines, such as not visiting vulnerable population groups (e.g. grandparents), explain why these have changed using facts and in child friendly language. Also communicate what is replacing this routine, as this can help to alleviate feelings of stress and increase feelings of safety.

8. Reduce Information

High levels of exposure to the media regarding COVID-19 may increase levels of stress. Currently, there is a high level of inaccurate information being shared online. This can have a negative impact on your own thinking, as well as children’s. It will be vital for adults to monitor, not only what they themselves are exposed to, but to what children see and hear, whether this is through face to face interactions or from media platforms.

9. Modelling

When children are unsure of what to do, this can make them feel unsafe and stressed. By showing children what to do, allows them to feel safe and secure in the knowledge the adult they trust is guiding them. By the adult remaining calm, they help children to remain calm.  A good technique for adults to calm themselves is The-3-Breath-Prompt.  The person catches themselves in the moment (e.g. entering the house, starting to cook the dinner, talking to your child etc) and pauses for a few seconds.  They then focus on their breath, inhaling through their nose, exhaling through their mouth – three times.  The increase in O2 into the bloodstream relaxes the body and calms the mind.  The 3-breath-prompt can be used to decrease feelings of stress throughout the day.  Not only can adults try this technique, but they can model it for children, and practice it with children.

Other modelling can include staying away from people who are coughing, sneezing, or sick and explaining why, will give children an understanding of what they are meant to do. Show children how to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after wiping/blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the toilet; and before eating. Show them how to use hand sanitiser for occasions where soap and water will not be available.

10. Fun control

When children feel stress, they will seek control. Provide structured activities for children to feel in control with. Allow them to create a new game/song for washing their hands. Allow them to be part of the decision making process, where possible, for creating new routines if regular ones are disrupted. Allowing children to feel a sense of achievement in their everyday experiences will also help boost their self-esteem and self-confidence. Ways of doing this could include creating a reward chart for completed tasks around the house.  This will help them feel valued and increases self-esteem.

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