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Talking to children about COVID-19

Rachael Heyns, child life specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital

During these very uncertain times, it is normal that your children are asking lots of questions. You may be wondering how to answer some of their questions. Specifically, you could be feeling challenged by how to balance being honest with your children, while also protecting them from unnecessary worry.

We know that for children to build and maintain trust they do need to be told the truth, but this can be done in a way that is developmentally appropriate and considerate of their emotional well-being.

Frame the truth appropriately

What this means is, that depending on the age and developmental level of your child, your answers should be founded upon what is true, while also considering what specifics regarding their question need to be shared in order to protect their best interests.

For example, if you notice that your preschool child is consumed with the idea that every adult they know and love will die because of the COVID-19 virus, sharing with them known statistics on adult deaths may not be the best answer to give them, even though it is true.

Instead, you could tell them that while a lot of people get the COVID-19 virus, most of them have gotten better, and for those that do get really sick, there are hospitals for them to go to, to get the best care that they need. This would be an honest and developmentally appropriate answer that still helps to protect your child from unnecessary worry.

What brought this on?

Another tip in answering children’s questions is to ask them about what they are wondering, as this really helps us ensure we are clarifying what’s on their mind.

Using that first example about a child worried about everyone they love dying from COVID-19, it might be helpful to say, “I understand that you are worried about that happening. Have you heard something that makes you worry?”

This gives an opportunity to understand what brought this on. Was it something they heard on the news? Did they hear family talking about it? Your child’s answer can then guide how you respond.

It’s okay not to know the answer

It is important to be mindful of how much and what type of information children and teens are exposed to. It can be overwhelming for us as adults to hear reports about the pandemic all day, and this is much harder for children who don’t understand as much.

And remember, these are uncertain and unfamiliar times for all of us, and it’s okay to not get it right every time. There may be times when you don’t have the answer, and at those times it’s okay for you to be honest and share that with your children.

It may be that you decide to find the answer together, or by yourself, and then share it with your child.

The fact that you are watching this video speaks volumes to how much you want to support your children, and we hope that in making these videos, you will feel much better equipped to provide that support.