Science-Backed Advice for Talking about Frightening Matters
Reassuring Tips to Prevent More Panic
by Billy Gozum
MOOOM! Do Grandma and Grandpa need to move out of their home because they live in Corona?
My seven-year-old asked me this one morning as I drove her to school and the NPR anchor just started talking about Coronavirus making its way to the US.
I stifled a smile because when I peeked at the rearview mirror, I saw that she was legit concerned, so I took a beat to compose myself before responding that the virus probably got that name due to its shape and not really because it came from the city where her grandparents lived.
And then she sighed contentedly and stopped asking any more questions (fellow parents, please join me in laughter at my blatant attempt at baiting non-parents with that).
Of course, the questions didn’t stop. Of course, she had more stuff to ask. Of course, she had more ideas to share.
Nowadays, I’m a lot more aware of what’s blaring on the news–if the reporter takes on a panic-inciting tone, I switch stations.
But that doesn’t mean I shield her from everything–if there’s information she should hear and if the report is presented objectively, we both listen and then I encourage conversation afterward.
If you’re not sure how to approach talking to your kids about what’s going on right now in a way that doesn’t strike panic and fear, don’t worry–you’re not alone.
Below are tips from scientists and parenting experts on how you can talk to your kids about Coronavirus in a calm yet effective way that doesn’t minimize their concerns or oversimplify the situation.
Practice Conscious Parenting
Explain Things in Plain Language
Kids are even more sensitive to language that’s confusing or complicated. And depending on your child’s personality, their response could vary from shutting down and tuning you out, pretending to understand what you said, or actively challenging you and asking you to explain things further.
One thing to note here is that there’s a difference between dumbing down and simplifying things. Remember, their attention span is limited so you have to convey important information concisely but effectively.
Use words you know they understand and make sure to break things down so they can follow your train of thought.
Here’s an example. Everyone keeps talking about social distancing, but even grown-ups find that phrase ambiguous. Take a cue from CDC’s explanation, which is plain enough for kids to understand:
“The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person.”
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). Here you can use your child’s height as a reference and tell them “two of you lying down is about how far you want to be from another person right now.”
Through [respiratory] droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Explain to them that when you’re far enough from someone, it protects you from breathing in the germs that a person coughed or sneezed out.
Balance is Everything
The key to communicating important information to children is striking a balance between being able to capture the facts and conveying it in a package that’s easy for them to distill but that doesn’t minimize their concerns or patronize them.
You want to make them feel reassured that you’re acknowledging their worries and that you’re there to help them find answers to their questions.
You wouldn’t want 80% peanut butter to 20% jelly (unless you’re a savage, just saying), right? So to everything a balance.
Each child has their own way of processing things, and you know your kid the best, so it’s up to you to find an approach that’s best suited to them.
If your child is the 20 Questions kind, walk through each question but also try to see what the root is. Is it because they’re hearing conflicting messages from classmates or from TV? Is it because they heard a passing conversation that’s left them confused?
Understanding the source of their concerns will help you in navigating your answers better and in reassuring them with the facts they need to hear.
If your kid is part hermit and prefers to stay mum about most things, it’ll take a bit more coaxing on your part but it’s not impossible. Try to ask questions that elicit longer answers than yes or no, like “What do you think about what we just talked about?” on top of your questions that check to see that they’re still following you.
Encourage an open line of communication.
Let them know that they can come to you if there’s anything they need cleared up. They look at you for reassurance and hearing you say “come to me any time you have a question” will be such a huge load lifted off their shoulders.
Another great benefit to a continuous conversation is that you’ll be able to keep track of the information they receive because this is also the information they’ll be passing along to their peers.
It’s your responsibility to make sure that they pass along information backed by facts and science so that they don’t become sources of confusion for others.
I’m gonna sound like a spaced-out guru spouting new age stuff here but bear with me for a bit because this is worth saying: the energy you put out is the energy that comes back to you.
Your children are mirrors of you in so many ways than one. And they pick up on our vibes more than we think. So during times of uncertainty, it’s even more important for us to stay as calm as possible.
So when we’re talking to them about these important matters, it’s important for them to see that we’re underscoring how serious things are, but it’s equally important for them to see that because you know the facts and you know what to do about these facts, you don’t have to be afraid.
Be matter-of-fact, but be assuring.
Bonus Material – Some Questions Answered
I know how tedious it is to pore through all these articles to get the answers you need, so I’m doing you a solid by giving you the Cliff Notes version but also providing you with the OG sources in case you want to deep dive.
From the CDC: Coronavirus symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
You’ll want to seek medical attention if you have:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion or inability to arouse
- Bluish lips or face
What You Can Do
To prevent spreading disease and to protect yourself from getting sick:
- Wash hands and rub your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds (sing Happy Birthday or the ABCs)
- Wash hands more often than usual
- Cough or sneeze into the fold of your elbow
- Drink a lot of water
- Wear a mask if you’re sick, but you don’t need it if you’re well
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
- Eat more healthful foods (broccoli, citrus fruits, spinach)
Here are more resources you might want to check out in talking to your kids. When doing your research online, it’s up to you to gauge your child’s perceptibility. If it serves them better to have you sift through the information first before showing them resources that they’ll understand the most, then do that.
How children can practice healthy hygiene, from The New York Times
What to do if you do get sick, from the CDC
How to talk to children about the Coronavirus, from Harvard Health
Conscious parenting is all about being truly present and intentional in your interactions with your child. It’s about acknowledging their individuality and giving them a safe space to express themselves and to feel seen and heard.
In traditional Filipino culture, children weren’t really entitled to a whole lot of opinions on the heavy stuff. I think older generations saw it as a way to instill discipline. Dissenting opinions were equated with disobedience. And although well-intentioned, there was definitely room for growth there.
This made me acutely aware of my own parenting style. And this is why I’m glad that more parents are starting to be more aware of the way they communicate with their kids.