April 22, 2020

Explaining COVID-19 to children

Providing comfort and age-appropriate information is key to easing anxiety among children.

With COVID-19 dominating the news and schools shut down as part of efforts to slow down the spread of the disease, it’s understandable that many children feel overwhelmed and in need of reassurance to help them cope with the stress.

Parents have an important role to play to make sure their children’s mental health does not suffer during these trying times, according to Ashley Zucker, MD, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in San Bernardino County.

“In these challenging times, it’s important that parents remain a source of comfort and calm for their children,” Dr. Zucker explained. “When talking to your children about COVID-19, you want to be open, but age-appropriate. It’s best to share only the information they’re asking for, and not go into excessive detail on components they may not even be aware of.” 

According to Dr. Zucker, children often look to their parents and adults to see if they should be afraid or anxious. It’s important to be honest, she said, but also comforting. “Let your kids know that it’s normal to feel stressed or worried, but reassure them that health care workers and government health officials are working hard to keep everyone healthy and safe.”

And, while being out of school for an extended period of time can be quite the challenge for both adults and children, it’s important to maintain as much of a schedule and normal routine as possible. “Set aside some specific time to work on schoolwork, but also time to relax and play or exercise,” Dr. Zucker said. “Schoolwork is important, but it’s also important to be aware of when children are feeling overwhelmed and may need to take a break.” 

Dr. Zucker encourages parents to be honest about the seriousness of the disease, and what their children can do to keep themselves safe. Parents can explain that the disease can spread between people who are in close contact with each other, through coughing or sneezing. Children should also know that most people who do get sick will have mild symptoms and will recover in a week or 2, she noted.

Dr. Zucker urged parents to limit their children’s media and news viewing, as this can increase anxiety. 

“Oftentimes, information in the news is not intended for young children and can make their fears much worse,” Dr. Zucker explained. “For all ages, hearing stories repeatedly regarding COVID-19 can increase anxiety and stress levels. Make sure to stay factual and be careful where you look for information. It’s always best to look for information at trusted resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Additional coronavirus and COVID-19 information is also available at kp.org.