Coronavirus (COVID-19): What to Talk About with Your Child

How you handle Coronavirus will impact your child's mental health.

Posted Mar 01, 2020

In today’s age of easy access to information at all times from many different sources, it seems that the news about coronavirus (COVID-19) is everywhere. For good reason, this is a topic of concern for all of us, especially parents. But we forget that younger ears are taking in too much information (often dramatized) and misperceiving the severity of the threat. This has the potential to cause or exacerbate mental health symptoms in our children.

I recently had a preteen in my office who was “terrified” of the coronavirus. She had heard about the virus and about “how deadly it was." She also heard a rumor that a fellow student at school had the coronavirus.  I had to calmly explain the facts, including that there were not cases of coronavirus even in the South of the United States.  She took a sigh of relief and was grateful for the information.  But she had been worried about this for weeks without talking about it with her parents who could have easily dispelled much of her concern. Unfortunately, she is not alone.  Many young people are perhaps needlessly being overwhelmed and stressed.  The following is what you can do, as a parent, to lower the risk of mental burden or trauma on your children during this time.

  1. Get the facts for yourself on the real risk to you and your family. As an example, the risk of infection from the coronavirus in the U.S. is low at this time. Most regions only have a few cases so far.  Also, should your child become infected, the risk of death has been estimated by the World Health Organization to be around 2%. 
  2. Ask what your child already knows about the coronavirus. It is likely that your child has watched or overheard numerous news reports. Your child has probably also received a lot of information about the virus from peers and teachers at school. You may need to deal with rumors and misconceptions.
  3. Listen to your child and let him or her express how he or she feels. Do not minimize your child’s emotions. 
  4. Calmly and briefly explain the facts to your child. Do not lie to your child, but do not give him or her more information than he or she is prepared to hear or needs in order to understand.  You can also discuss what your child can do to protect themselves such as handwashing. This can give him or her some sense of control.
  5. Assure your child that he or she is safe right now and discuss your plan on how your family will do their best to stay that way.
  6. Limit exposure to television or news sources as they will cause your child to believe the threat is more serious than it is. Finding out how many new infections or deaths that there have been every day is not helpful or productive for your child.  It will only cause unnecessary stress. This also means that parents need to be mindful of who is in the room when they are watching television to stay informed.
  7. Keep routines and schedules the same unless asked to change something by your government officials or school district. Consistency and routine are signals to your child that things are fine and “normal."

If your child seems too bothered by what is going on around him or her, know when to seek professional help from a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Those children already having underlying anxieties are more likely to develop severe anxieties or mood symptoms that need to be treated. Be aware of the following signs and symptoms:

  1. Refusal to attend school.
  2. Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, bedwetting, or insomnia.
  3. Problems with focus.
  4. Moodiness or irritability.
  5. Repetitive fears, especially of being separated from parents.
  6. Being easily startled or jumpy.
  7. Behavioral problems that are new or increased.
  8. Frequent physical complaints—headaches, stomachaches.
  9. Depressive symptoms—withdrawal from family or friends, less interest in things previously enjoyed, sadness, low energy, insomnia or sleeping too much