Talking about the COVID-19 outbreak with children and young people.
This post provides some guidelines that may be helpful for parents and teachers on how to respond to children when they ask about COVID-19.
Children process information according to their developmental level so it is helpful to have an idea of how to respond to their questions in ways which are most effective. All children are different and have their own unique emotional responses but the following is a general guideline.
Young children up to about age 5
Children of this age need simple straightforward answers to their questions. They do not need more than they ask for. If they want more they will ask. Too much information can be confusing and may be upsetting. Children this age may need to ask repeatedly and adults need to be patient in repeating answers and refrain from responding with “I told you that already”. If children are anxious they should be reassured that they are safe. Do not share your own fears with children of this age.
Play is an excellent way to process information. Children of this age will express emotions in their play so it is worth keeping an eye and supporting expressive play. Having resources such as dressing up clothes and models can be helpful. Playing alongside and with children of this age is good for both the children and the adults.
Children 5 to 10
Children of this age are likely to be more curious about the situation. They will be more aware of what adults are talking about and may hear things from media sources. Questions should also be answered straightforwardly. Beware of giving excess or more worrying information. Limit exposure to the news and media feeds as far as possible.
Children need to be listened to, to have their questions answered and to be reassured that they are safe and being looked after. Try not to tell children of this age not to worry. If they are asking about the situation, they may not be worried, just curious and that answer could start them worrying. Alternatively they may be worrying already so telling them not to do so dismisses their fears and leaves them feeling that they have not been listened to.
Children of this age often act out their experiences in role play. They may also paint and draw to express themselves. Providing resources for this to happen can be helpful. Try not to react too much to their play as by playing they are likely to be processing information without needing further discussion.
Older children are likely to gain their information about the situation more independently, in particular through social media. They are also more likely to discuss it with their peers rather than their parents. There is therefore a lot of opportunity for myths and scares to abound. This is a good opportunity to discuss internet safety and self-imposed limitations.
Older children will be processing information at a more abstract level and are likely to be more critical of the actions of governments and adults in authority. They may need more extended discussion and validated reassurances with adults in order to manage their feelings about the situation.
If they become anxious, older children can be supported to develop their coping strategies through discussion with adults and online support.
It is a good idea for parents to encourage older children to talk about how they are feeling about this situation. If they are reluctant to do so then they will sometimes talk to another trusted adult. They may want to protect their parent from worrying about them (parents are frequently perceived as having a lot on their plate and their children sometimes don’t want to add to their stress).
It is important to recognise that, whether we like it or not, we are the role models for our children. So, if we display anxiety, they are likely to pick it up. In addition, they will copy our coping strategies. Staying calm, focussing on reliable information sources and supporting each other will help people ride out this storm.
Written by Dr Angie Wigford, Educational Psychologist for Dover Court International School, Singapore. 14th February 2020