Even as adults, it can be difficult to parse through the torrent of news and information about the coronavirus without feeling fear, anxiety, or discomfort. For those who are parents or caretakers of a young child, they don’t just have their own physical and mental health to worry about; they have kids to take care of, too. And those kids have a lot of questions.
As a result, parenting articles on navigating Covid-19 have popped up across the internet over the past few weeks and months, with titles like “How to talk to kids about coronavirus.” Vox has answered seven big questions kids have about the pandemic, and our daily podcast Today, Explained has released a kid-friendly episode that explains the coronavirus through an adventure quest format. (There is more information about the episode and activities for kids at the bottom of this article.)
The premise of these materials is simple: Most children have realized by now that something is happening in the world, and this phenomenon has led people to change their lifestyles and habits. It can be overwhelming for a parent to determine what to address and what to leave out, and how to honestly answer the questions a child might have. It can even be confusing whether you should talk to your child about it in the first place.
I spoke with Rachel Giannini, an early education specialist and teacher, about why it’s important to inform kids about the coronavirus and how beneficial it can be for their emotional wellbeing. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How do we make sure kids feel emotionally safe about the coronavirus and the information that we’re getting? Why is that important?
Our littlest of littles are extraordinarily observant, and even if you’re not talking to them directly about what’s happening, they’re picking up bits and pieces of the situation. You have to recognize that young children see the world through a very different lens than adults. Adults are constructionists; we learn and analyze things from our own lived experiences. A lot of young children haven’t had our life experiences, so it can be easy for them to misconstrue a situation, especially if they don’t have enough information about it.
At the same time, there’s a lot of information out there that isn’t accurate, and obviously, we don’t want our children to be misinformed. Having conversations with your child allows you to know where their understanding is. It also helps them develop a deeper understanding of the situation because they can ask questions and have an open dialogue, so everyone can be on the same page.
What effect is this crisis currently having on kids and their future behaviors?
The coronavirus pandemic is a traumatic event; it’s unprecedented and something that’s affecting everybody. Trauma affects all of us very differently, and while adults are able to rebound from trauma, this affects children more intensely — especially those who are under 6 because their brains are still being built. If you’ve ever had a traumatic event, it can lead to adverse childhood experiences that cause toxic stress.
That’s something a lot of people are starting to flag about the current crisis. I just want to make it clear that I’m not a doctor, but studies have shown that when we experience toxic stress, our brain releases stress hormones when we are scared. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, basically. Wonderful things can be done to turn this off in children, like when a parent or caregiver addresses a child’s emotional concerns or gives them a hug. Those things can turn off that chemical release.
However, when that’s not turned off or that fear isn’t addressed, those hormones keep pumping out, rewire our brain, and can have lifelong effects. It can affect a child’s development, and when those kids enter the classroom, it can become a behavioral issue. If a child is always on fight-or-flight mode, they’re less likely to be engaged at school and, as I mentioned, have behavioral issues that could create a domino effect with their relationship to school and educators. Coronavirus could be an adverse childhood experience, especially with how the situation has escalated.
Are kids picking up new behaviors like consistent hand-washing and social distancing as a result of Covid-19?
The one thing about children is that things become normalized really quickly for them. The most interesting thing I’ve heard lately from a couple of friends is that their children, when playing with Legos, are spacing the figures far apart. Their toys are social distancing. One of them put up a little Lego computer and said that the Lego people are on Zoom. This is a 4-turning-5-year-old who has completely normalized what’s happening.
My downstairs neighbor who is 5 will sit on the porch with us and when somebody walks by, he’ll yell, “Social distancing!” When children are playing and they’re acting out certain coronavirus situations, like putting masks on toys or making things social distance, that’s really, really normal. Children use play as a way to work out what’s currently going on in their lives emotionally and cognitively.
When you see your child engaging in some form of play, that’s a wonderful opportunity to ask them open-ended questions like, “What’s going on? Why are your toys spread out?” That way, you can understand how your child is grappling with the situation and that’s an opportunity for you to maybe have some teachable moments. Anything that we do as adults, when we normalize it and model that behavior, children pick up on it. It can be as simple as washing our hands more or putting on a mask. That just becomes the new thing for them.
There’s been more articles and content related to informing kids about coronavirus. Is this advice generally helpful?
There’s definitely a lot of information out there, but some of it is boilerplate and not very personalized. One thing that’s frustrating is this material is not often differentiated for ages. It’s very different talking to a 5-year-old than to a 10-year-old.
Children under six have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. If you’re having an abstract conversation with a 4-year-old, for example, about how a virus or a germ is spreading, they may not quite grasp what you mean by “spreading.” Being able to put it in something that’s concrete, that they can relate to, they’ll be able to better understand the situation.
There’s something called the “zone of proximity” that explains how a child learns. You have this basic understanding, and caregivers and educators help move you through higher levels of understanding by asking questions. That’s one reason why I’m harping on this idea of finding out what your child knows and then asking them open-ended questions to allow them to really take their existing experiences and start to expand upon them.
I want everybody to start with the very bare basics of having a conversation with your kids. I know it sounds so simple, but that’s what’s beautiful about it! It’s not one size fits all. You should really think about the child and their needs. Have you recently had somebody pass away? Has your child recently started school and no longer seeing friends, or are they on the opposite end where they don’t like going to school? There are a lot of things that are very special for each specific group and it’s not until you know their level of understanding, fears, and concerns that you can address them in an authentic way.
How do we make sure this situation isn’t a scary unknown thing, but something kids are able to understand and metabolize on their own?
First of all, find out what they know. Ask them what they know, what they think, what they feel about it. While we want our children to be informed, we don’t need to give them, for example, the number of fatalities that day. You don’t want to overshare something that could trigger something else. Ask them what they already know and what they want to know. “What could I help you answer?” In any answer you give a child, you should approach it with respect, compassion, and kindness, and make sure to end it with something positive.
If a child asks, “Are people dying?” Say yes. Don’t lie, but remember to tell them that not everybody dies. Add that positive into the conversation. You can explain how we can social distance to keep our families safe or wear a mask and wash our hands more. As a parent, you can boil down the big scary thing and make it super clear and tangible as to what we can do. Children need to feel empowered; the lack of information and lack of power are two things that really trigger fear with our children. If we can solve those issues, we can help them feel empowered even in this situation.
Are there certain tips or choices in language you would suggest parents use to reassure their kids?
Respect any question they have and address it with kindness, compassion, and honesty. Don’t lie to a child, even if they ask a question like, “Am I going to die?” You can explain that death happens to everybody, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen anytime soon. Ask them, “What can we do to feel safe and protect our bodies?” Giving them that power, giving them that control is something helps children feel a sense of agency.
If that means making masks, putting things up on windows, calling relatives, these are ways to make sure that your child can feel that they’re safe. All these things are beneficial during this time. One thing to keep in mind is that children are extraordinarily concrete creatures. Abstract ideas are not their forte. Anything you can do to make it relatable to their life is helpful.
Listen to a special episode of our daily news podcast. Today, Explained to Kids takes kids to a magical island where some of their biggest questions about coronavirus are answered by a tree that grows books and a cave that doesn’t rest until it gets a good answer from our guest expert, science writer Brian Resnick. Listen on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Then download four learning exercises, crafted by Rachel Giannini, that parents and educators can do with their kids after listening.