How to talk to children and address their coronavirus concerns

All of this coronavirus information can be overwhelming and frightening for children, and it's up to parents to provide accurate information in an age-appropriate manner, one expert says.

Be honest and don't keep them in the dark, youth psychiatrist says

A family wearing face masks waited at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., a day after U.S. President Donald Trump announced travel restrictions on flights from Europe to the United States for 30 days to try to contain the coronavirus. It can be frightening for children to see scenes like this. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

There's no escaping it. On television, in schools, on the street and at home, one word hangs in the air: coronavirus.

The coronavirus — which causes COVID-19 — and its repercussions are unlike anything people today have ever experienced. Stock markets have been plunging, travel restrictions have been put in place, major sports events have been suspended, schools are closing and an entire country, Italy, is under lockdown.

All of this information can be overwhelming and frightening for children, and it's up to parents to provide accurate information in an age-appropriate manner, one expert says.

Julie Farrally, of Mississauga, Ont., is the mother of two teenagers. She noticed heightened concern from her 15-year-old son, Noah. It started fairly early on and began with frequent handwashing.

"He's definitely more conscious about germs," Farrally said. "He's definitely way more conscious about keeping the house clean, to the point where I'm like, 'No, you're in the house, and you've been in the house, you don't need to rewash our hands.'"

It's not that he's paranoid, she said, just more conscious about being clean.

Youth psychiatrist Dr. Rachel Mitchell, with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said it's important to validate fears held by children, to listen to them and to be sure to speak to them at the age-appropriate level. If they have asked questions, answer them honestly, and don't share any more information other than what they asked.

"Obviously, the conversation you have with a five-year-old is not going to be the same conversation that you have with a 10-year-old, which is not the same conversation that you're going to have with a teenager," Mitchell said.

Dr. Rachel Mitchell, a youth psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, says it's important to validate children's fear and concern over COVID-19. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC )

Limit exposure to the news

Also, don't keep them in the dark.

"Don't hide news from kids," Mitchell said. "The instinct to protect them is natural and valid and inherent to being a parent. But as with any difficult news story, telling them the realistic truth at their level of understanding is very important."

But that also doesn't mean putting on the news 24/7. Mitchell said there is value to limiting exposure to the news. 

That's something that Farrally and her husband are doing.

I won't turn on the news and just keep it on.- Julie Farrally, mother of two teens

"I won't turn on the news and just keep it on," she said. "I don't want to overdo it. I'm not hiding it, but I just don't want to overdo it." 

For young children, Mitchell said, parents could read the news with them. This provides the opportunity to ask questions along the way. But tell them only what you think they need to know. 

A child, wearing a protective face mask, following an outbreak of coronavirus, uses hand sanitizer at Stella Kids, daycare centre in Tokyo. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

"Thinking that something is being kept from you is more anxiety-provoking than a real conversation at any age," Mitchell said.

And a bit of empowerment goes a long way.

"Helping kids feel that they have agency through handwashing, for example, is amazing," Mitchell said. 

Be a role model

With COVID-19 cases rising across Canada daily, it may be difficult for parents to deal with their own fears and concerns. But Mitchell said it's important to keep calm around children.

"You have to be aware of your anxiety," she said. "If it's out of control, then that's probably not something you want to show your kids."

Instead, parents can leave the room if they feel their anxiety is overwhelming and return once they've calmed down.

For Farrally, she said her concerns over COVID-19 ebb and flow.

"Sometimes I think, 'OK, most people are going to get over this,'" she said. 

But the fast and ever-changing status of the disease makes it difficult to keep those fears at bay. One challenge was the announcement Wednesday by the World Health Organization that it was a pandemic, she said.

"I thought, 'Damn, how nervous should I be about this?'" she said. "And,honestly, I'm really glad we're not going anywhere for March Break.'"

And finally, ensure that children are reading trusted sources and not listening to rumours or misinformation passed through social media, particularly for children who may be more anxious than others.

"Always validate that anxiety and that concern, because it's valid, especially now," Mitchell said. "If it's dismissed, then that's a missed opportunity" as a parent.