How to Talk to Children About Coronavirus

Mary Kate Morrow
April 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has completely changed our world in a very short period of time. Workplaces and schools across the country have closed their doors until further notice. Governor Newson sent home the 6.1 million children that represent California’s public K-12 schools for at least the rest of the academic year. New York City’s public school system, the largest in the nation, remains closed indefinitely.

This massive shift in the educational system is resulting in millions of children suddenly at home until further notice. Caretakers are struggling to keep their children educated, informed and entertained while also keeping their children both physically and mentally healthy.

Experts have provided extensive advice to help you and your family get through the pandemic. By ensuring physical and emotional safety, creating routines and stability, and implementing healthy coping mechanisms, you can support your child to the best of your ability during the coronavirus pandemic.

Make Sure Everyone is Covered

Before talking to your children about the pandemic, you need to make sure that your family has proper health insurance coverage. Health insurance provides both peace of mind and stability, which are essential in such turbulent times. Not only will you be protected for you and your family’s physical well-being, but you’ll have coverage for mental health. You will be much better informed and able to guide children through their questions if you understand how your health insurance coverage works, should you or your family members need it.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, there are approximately 17 million uninsured people who are eligible for Obamacare. More than 25% of these people would pay nothing in premiums if they were to elect a bronze plan, due to federal subsidies. It used to be the rule that you had to sign up for health insurance during Open Enrollment. If you missed the January deadline, you had to wait another year to enroll in order to buy health insurance.

In 11 states, including the District of Columbia, Washington, Nevada, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Minnesota, New York and Maryland, you can now enroll in new health coverage under the Affordable Care Act at any time. Even if your state has not opened up their enrollment, you can enroll in a health plan if you lost your job or your hours have been cut as a result of the pandemic. If you’re pregnant, you can also enroll in a health plan outside the open enrollment period.

People who’ve been laid off can now get subsidized health insurance without jumping through too many hoops. In states that have opened up Obamacare again, many state officials have chosen to create this special enrollment period so that people will not hesitate to get tested for coronavirus. With the proper coverage, you are doing everything you can to keep your children safe. Immediate needs include shelter, food and healthcare. After ensuring their physical needs are met, you can then address their emotional needs.

Look For Warning Signs

The majority of children are incredibly resilient, even in the face of severe stress or trauma. However, to increase the likelihood of your child emerging from the pandemic with minimal negative mental-health consequences, you need to be aware of warning signs, like the following:

  • Excessive crying, irritation, worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy diet and sleeping habits including nightmares or insomnia
  • “Outgrown behavior” including toilet accidents, thumb sucking or bedwetting
  • “Acting out” and irritability in teens or temper tantrums in children
  • Poor school performance or avoidance of schoolwork altogether
  • Avoidance of activities that previously were enjoyable
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Increased worries about health and the future
  • Unexplained pain, such as stomach aches and headaches
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco or other substances

If you see these warning signs, make sure to check in with your child. You should also consider getting professional support for more serious behavior including:

  • Changes in behavior that last more than one month
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Serious physical or verbal aggression that threatens their safety or that of those around them
  • Self-harm
  • Panic attacks

If your child is demonstrating extreme behaviors like those listed above, contact their pediatrician or mental health provider for advice. In cases where behaviors are urgent or potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. For non-emergency support, visit NAMI for a list of HelpLine numbers.

Children who have already been diagnosed with a mentally illness are particularly vulnerable during the stress of the pandemic. If your child has a preexisting mental health condition, make sure to continue their treatment plan including any prescribed medications, remote therapy and psychiatric appointments. Carefully monitor and note any increase in symptoms to share with their mental health team.

You should not only be mindful of these warning signs during the pandemic but also in the future. The CDC has a resource page about how to talk to children of various ages about the disaster during the pandemic and once it is over, including guidance for special needs children. You can find this resource page here.

Know The Facts

Knowing the facts about the coronavirus can help decrease your child or teen’s stress. With so many social media and news outlets, it is important to check in with your child about what information they have received from friends and outside sources.

Schedule a specific and limited time to check in with the news and update your child appropriately, depending on their age and maturity level. Seek information from trusted sources in order to take practical and productive safety measures. It is important to stay mindful of mental-health triggers when seeking out information. Teach your children to factcheck information and to only receive information from trusted sources. Encourage your child to come to you to talk about any concerning information they have been exposed to.

If your child or teen is easily upset, only provide updates on what information is essential to their safety. Avoid trigger words like “mortality” or “death toll” and images that show sick or dying people. Always talk to your child about the coronavirus pandemic in an age-appropriate and reassuring matter.

Be A Good Role Model and Create Routines

The most powerful way you can show your child how to cope is through your own actions. By taking care of yourself, you are not only modeling good behavior for your child, but you are also better equipped to take care of them. Lead by example by eating well, sleeping regularly and avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms including alcohol and drug use.

Children respond well to routines and structures that incorporate healthy habits, especially during disasters. Unstructured time can result in boredom, mental health flare-ups and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Although everyone has a “new normal” as a result of the pandemic, you can still be proactive in re-establishing familiar structures and predictable routines. Include your child in creating and implementing new healthy routines.

Get Creative

You and your child can get creative in keeping your support system close while remaining mindful of media consumption. If you are stuck at home, schedule virtual hangouts with family and friends you cannot visit. Consider establishing a daily “family meeting” at a scheduled time and do your best to stick to it. Distant family members may be able to join in via phone or video call.

If appropriate, teachers and coaches may be helpful to check-in with for your child. Connecting to the larger community, including faith-based groups or schools can also increase your child’s resilience. Texts, emails, letter writing, video calls and phone calls can all be utilized to help your child feel more connected with their larger support system. In some neighborhoods, children are chalking the sidewalks with encouraging messages for their neighbors.

Demonstrate to your child that it is okay to seek support. If you check in with mental health professionals, be honest with your child about doing so. This combats stigma surrounding mental health, should they ever seek help too.

Call or text your friends and family when you are feeling stressed and be honest about your emotions. Quarantined persons may feel disconnected from their support system, which is why it is even more important to intentionally keep connected. By making sure you are emotionally supported, you can better help your child feel supported while demonstrating how to navigate support systems during this time.

Take a Break

Take regular breaks from social media and unfollow or mute accounts that negatively affect your mood. Choose to mute overwhelming WhatsApp groups, Facebook posts and triggering keywords on Twitter. Make sure your child is taking breaks from social media and is being mindful of what content is triggering them too. You can do this by implementing “no social media” times, during which the whole family must disconnect from social media. Also, consider monitoring or limiting your children’s social media usage via parental control applications.

Implement Coping Mechanisms

Remember that social isolation is a traumatic experience that negatively affects mental health. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, a study showed that children in isolation were four times more likely to develop PTSD than non isolated children. Also, 30% of parents who were quarantined also reported mental health problems. Quarantined people often feel out of control of their situation, less autonomous and less competent. These feelings manifest as sleep problems, poor concentration and depression. Children may feel trapped, cut off from friends and peers and may view self-isolation as a punishment.

Encourage your child to check in with their mental health and express their feelings, reminding them that this is for everyone’s well-being and not a punishment. Use this time at home as an opportunity to provide your child with lifelong healthy coping mechanisms, while also taking care of your own physical and mental health. Regular exercise helps maintain fitness and mood and can be a great activity in which to include your child. Gyms are closed across the country but some are offering online workout classes that the whole family can engage in. Take a walk around your block or jump rope, unless you’ve been told by doctors not to exercise. Get creative in finding ways to be physically active by setting up an obstacle course for your child or a scavenger hunt. Remember to always practice social distancing while exercising.

Meditation helps reduce blood pressure and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Meditation is also a very pandemic friendly coping mechanism. You can meditate from the comfort of your home at any time. Meditating can help you with breathing techniques. For children who cannot focus on meditation, teach them easy breathing techniques. Remind both yourself and your child to take deep, calming breaths often throughout this pandemic.

Help your child learn how to express their emotions in words or art. Encourage your child to practice gratitude by writing down just five things they are grateful for every day. If your teen is not open to this, encourage them to journal privately and find healthy outlets to express their emotions. If you can, provide art supplies for children who are more artistically expressive.

When possible, try to positively reframe the situation. Maybe instead of being “stuck at home,” the pandemic can be reframed as an opportunity to spend more family time. Encourage your child to be of service to others, from a distance, if appropriate.

Helping others can help provide a sense of control and increase community ties. This could be organizing efforts to help elderly neighbors get food or supplies, buying gift certificates to local businesses or helping to fundraise for those most affected by the pandemic.

Positively reframing situations when possible may help your family use extra time more productively. Check off items from your to-do list or start a new project with your child. Variety is the spice of life and incorporating new activities can provide some healthy variation in routine.

Most importantly, remind yourself that the only necessary task in this pandemic is to keep yourself and your child alive and healthy to the best of your ability. Be easy on yourself and do not create unnecessary stress if you do not meet all your goals and expectations. Cut yourself and your child some slack and remember to practice kindness towards yourself and others during this time.

Remember, we are all in this together, and the coronavirus pandemic is a scary time for everyone. By providing emotional support and modeling healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms, you are not only helping your family get through the pandemic but also teaching them life-long skills necessary to grow and thrive.

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