Coronavirus has turned our children’s lives upside down. Suddenly, they face a nightmare scenario: stuck at home 24-7 with their parents, cut off from school and friends, no end in sight.
Not surprisingly, they have a lot of questions. They deserve answers.
“When can we go to school again?” my 10-year-old son asks repeatedly, forgetting what he thought about school before this all started.
“If I wear an outlaw bandana, can I hang out with Oliver?” my older boy, age 13, wants to know.
I take a deep breath, detaching myself from my job helping the public health organization I work for respond to the pandemic.
Part of being in public health means responding as honestly and as fully as you can to people’s concerns in times of crisis without frightening them. My children deserve no less.
“We’re taking this day by day,” I tell them. “I don’t know the exact timeline for what’s ahead, but here’s what I know now.”
Then I answer the questions I can answer.
It’s time well spent. This pandemic will be a formative experience in my children’s lives, an experience that will define their generation.
I encourage other parents to take the time to answer their children’s questions as well. It’s not always easy, but you can do it—and it will help your kids get through this experience.
Begin by asking your kids what they already know and what questions they have. Answer their questions in a way that’s appropriate to their age and development. Try to avoid alarming discussions in front of them.
I have told my sons that coronavirus has made some people sick in many countries around the world, most often older people, and that more people are getting sick over time. The symptoms are similar to the flu, which both my kids have had, so they understand it can cause a fever or cough or make it harder to breathe.
I also let them know that not many kids have gotten sick, but that if they do, we’ll take care of them the same way we did when they had the flu: with rest, fluids, and medicine like ibuprofen. Above all else, children must feel safe.
I’ve explained that we are all working together to protect people who are more likely to get sick. That means agreeing to stay home as much as possible, and covering our mouth and nose now, so that we don’t unknowingly pass the disease along to others.
While we work together to slow the spread of coronavirus, children still need physical activity, including, if possible, some time outside. This is important for their physical and mental health—and for our health as parents!
It’s important to let kids know that they can stay safe and protect others by doing a few simple things they already do—just with greater frequency. During cold and flu season, I always tell my kids to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Instead of counting to 20, we sing a favorite song to make it fun. I’ve also taught them to cough and sneeze into a tissue and throw it away, or to cough into their elbow.
When outside in a shared space, I explain that we’re not touching anything, including doorknobs, benches, elevator buttons, and for now, playgrounds are off limits. Also, we need to give the people we see a lot more space than normal—including people we know. And, as soon as we arrive home, we wash our hands and sing our song.
At times like this, children are often nervous or emotional. Always lead by letting them know that parents, their teachers, neighbors, hospitals, doctors, and nurses are doing everything they can to keep all kids safe. And stay in touch with your own fears, making sure you talk about the virus only when you can approach the topic as objectively as possible.
Over these next weeks, it will be important to keep the conversation going. I tell my kids to ask me any time they have a question, and we can find out the answer together. I make sure they know the lines of communication are open so that they don’t feel anxious or believe any false information they may hear. If you are reassuring and calm, they will come back to you.
Depending on your child’s age and interests, this may be a teaching opportunity about science, about the roles different professions play in our society, or about making ethical decisions.
For parents or teachers trying to stay up to speed, look to trusted sources like the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Both update COVID-19 information daily.
COVID-19 has turned everyone’s lives upside down, but as adults, we have an opportunity to reassure and inform our kids. It will make this experience less frightening and less burdensome for them—which ought to make it better for us as well.
Christina Chang is the Executive Vice President and Deputy CEO at Vital Strategies, a global health organization headquartered in New York City.