How to talk to children about the coronavirus

Experts recommend informing yourself about coronavirus before talking to children. (Getty Images)
Experts recommend informing yourself about coronavirus before talking to children. (Getty Images)

As fear surrounding the coronavirus outbreak seems to have ramped up a notch, parents are increasingly facing questions from concerned children, who have been picking up bits of (mis)information from their classmates, the Internet and the people they follow on TikTok.

From wondering if they are going to get the virus themselves, to fearing their grandparents could die from it, and possibly hoping school might be closed for the rest of the year, as the virus continues to spread parents are increasingly wondering how to best keep little ones updated without sending them into a complete panic.

While the risk of young people being seriously affected by the virus seems to be low, playground rumours and doom-laced news snippets can quickly spark concern.

Read more: Should we be concerned by the ‘second straight of coronavirus’?

Stories of deaths, supermarkets running out of food and school closures, can heap on the sense of alarm.

So how do parents talk to little ones about the coronavirus and its potential impacts? Yahoo UK consulted with experts about how to approach the topic and what not to say.

Don’t try to shield it from them

While its tempting to hide the true details about the coronavirus with inquisitive young kids, Dr Zoi Nikiforidou, a senior lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Liverpool Hope University, warns you could end up harming their development and understanding in the long run.

“You might be tempted to try and skirt around the issue, telling them, 'Oh, you don't need to know about that' in order to safeguard their feelings and worries,” she says.

“But you're making judgements about what they may or may not need to know which could actually be detrimental to their cognitive development and appreciation of what is risky or not.”

Read more: Coronavirus ‘could spread in faeces and urine’

Dr Nikiforidou believes children shouldn't be kept in a 'bubble' - and you shouldn't underestimate their powers of reason and understanding, either.

She explains: “Like it or not, Coronavirus conversations will be going on around your children and by not addressing it you're creating a breeding ground for fear and misunderstanding.”

Children may have picked up wrong information about coronavirus from their friends or the Internet. (Getty Images)
Children may have picked up wrong information about coronavirus from their friends or the Internet. (Getty Images)

Keep calm and measured

According to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic it is important to model a non-panicked response and give information in a matter-of-fact way.

She suggests parents 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, and whilst it’s important to take precautions (e.g. wash hands regularly), this isn’t something that is likely to harm them,” she says.

Inform yourself first

It might sounds obvious, but it is important for parents to inform themselves about coronavirus before they even think about discussing it with their children.

“The aim of any conversation about the coronavirus with a child is to help them feel empowered and educated – in an age-appropriate manner – to help allay concerns,” explains Burton Paul, healthcare specialist and author of an invaluable book called Is It Serious? How to search for health information on the Internet.

Read more: Coronavirus’ death rate higher than previously thought, WHO says

He recommends that parents spend time researching the coronavirus (educating and empowering themselves) by referring to the most reliable and trusted resources first.

“Even in the playground, there is talk about the coronavirus, children are expressing fears that they or a family member will get the virus, and at this stage,” he explains.

“One of the most dangerous things that could happen, is that parents pass on misinformation to their children without realising - and there is a lot of it about.”

Dr Nikiforidou agrees that parents should turn to reliable sources for information.

“Visit the Government's Public Health England and NHS information pages and get yourself acquainted with the official, research-based advice - not just the sensational content you might stumble upon on social media,” she says.

Ask them what they know

Finding out what your child has already learned about the coronavirus can give you a steer on where to take the conversation and what misconceptions you might have to correct.

“Your child might only be five or six years old. But he or she will pick-up pieces of information vicariously, whether it's snippets of things they hear on the radio, in the car, or through news segments overheard from the TV or from discussions with peers at school,” Dr Nikiforidou explains.

“They might not mention anything to you. But internally they may be trying to process this new information which could also be making them fearful.”

Keep it simple

When discussing the subject it is important to use simple language and allow children to ask lots of questions to show they're being listened to.

“Try not to convey any stress or anxiety on your part. But also don't feel bad about sharing your concerns and worries either,” Dr Nikiforidou explains.

“Try to use positive language instead of language that scares and is absolute.”

Read more: Could the coronavirus spread on public transport

Dr Nikiforidou also suggests involving children in the discussion, and maybe even the analysis to a certain point.

“At least bring them into the picture and make them feel like their question is valuable and has merit,” she adds.

Parents may be tempted to gloss over the subject but it is important to discuss coronavirus with children. (Getty Images)
Parents may be tempted to gloss over the subject but it is important to discuss coronavirus with children. (Getty Images)

Judge whether to discuss the death aspect

According to Dr Elena Touroni how much you tell them about the death toll depends on the age of the child and their own individual nature.

“It's hard for younger children to understand nuances so I would refrain from mentioning death,” she 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, she recommends qualifying 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.

Teach them the hygiene basics

This way you’re talking to a child about things he or she can control, such as binning their tissues and washing their hands properly, rather than those they cannot.

“Follow the rules of washing hands and encourage that at home, and especially in public places,” Burton Paul says.

“It can help to explain to children about how it is spread and what the symptoms are, but try to encourage them to feel safe and secure, while educated and informed.

“The main piece of advice, though, is to teach them how to properly and regularly wash their hands.”