Mother having discussion with teenage daughter

The Best Ways To Communicate With Kids During The COVID-19 Response

ThedaCare Pediatrician Has Tips and Suggestions for Families

It can be difficult coming up with the right words to say and the correct information to give your children in the middle of a crisis. Information is changing by the minute and the future can seem uncertain.

“To add to the challenge of processing COVID-19 information, families are confined to their homes, bringing new stresses amid the pandemic,” said Sharon Rink, MD, a pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians-Darboy. “Parents may be trying to work, trying to teach their children or minding toddlers and babies. Children may be missing friends, relatives or teachers. Trying to learn on their own, navigate technology or having parents try to teach can be overwhelming.”

There are ways for kids to cope in this new reality. Parents play a major role in communicating what kids really need to know: It’s going to be okay. Children, even babies, pick up on what their parents feel, so start by practicing stress-relievers each day.

“Breathe deeply for starters,” said Dr. Rink. “And continue to do so throughout the day, especially in those anxious, impatient moments. It brings instant relaxation.”

Dr. Rink added that parents need to pay attention to self-care: eat healthy, exercise and get at least six hours of sleep. It will prepare them for the inevitable “talk” on the COVID-19 crisis.

“Depending on the age, sometimes it’s best to wait until their child brings up the pandemic, so always be at the ready,” she said. “Start by asking what they know about it. For adolescents and teenagers who tend to watch or read the news and are more exposed to what’s happening in the outside world, you can ask how they feel about the news they hear. Also, perhaps ask for them to find one good report they heard each day and share the story.”

Whether proactive or reactive, Dr. Rink advised keeping in mind these communication strategies.

  1. Be honest. Have an age appropriate talk on the current state of the crisis, correcting any misinformation they might have seen online or heard from friends. “For younger kids, talk about the coronavirus being similar to the flu, but different in that we have to take extra precautions,” said Dr. Rink. “Also note that doctors and scientists are working on finding medicine to help us.” One can refer to Mr. Rogers as he says that “helpers” will always be there to take care of us.
  2. Point to the positive. Provide some hope if questions enter uncomfortable areas of despair. Talk about the good you have seen in this pandemic – the people (“helpers” and neighbors) helping strangers in unusual ways, the number of people recovering from COVID-19, or the hope of a vaccine. Even talk about ways they can contribute to the positivity.
  3. Reinforce control. Remind children the control they do have in this seemingly out-of-control situation. They are responsible for their actions. They can practice social distancing with family and friends. They can wash their hands frequently and learn how to do so properly. Parents can also remind their children to wash their hands before touching their face. They also can build new routines into their day and decide when they do schoolwork and have playtime. The routines will help reassure kids with the predictability of the routine.
  4. Stay connected. Kids likely feel disconnected. Now is not the time to retreat from the outside world. Talk about how they can be part of the solution. Ask them to schedule time with family and friends and how – via phone or video chat. When they FaceTime with grandma and grandpa, ask that they limit their conversation to fond memories or visualizing the fun time they will have together when they no longer need to stay-at-home. It will bring a sense of normalcy to the situation hearing recognizable voices and seeing familiar faces.
  5. Create some diversions. Caregivers can plan a few fun surprises. You could set up a family “trip” online to a museum, zoo or national park. Kids would love having breakfast for dinner, eating in a different room or making tents in the house. Fun activities like this will make some crazy memories and can stop some worries for a while.
  6. Create a safe space. Children should feel comfortable talking openly about their stress. They already are being raised in an era where they are exposed to more challenging situations than past generations – violence, sexual abuse and other crimes – leaving them feeling unsafe and stressed. As parents, being available and open to conversations on their fears and anxiety will help them feel loved and supported, which generally helps them adapt better to major world events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When parents successfully manage events like COVID-19, it strengthens a child’s capability to cope in future stressful situations,” Dr. Rink said. “We will get through this together, and children play a role in that support.”

If families need additional support, United Way 2-1-1 provides easy, simple access to health and human services, gives callers an opportunity to get or give help, and serves as a hub for community information in times of disaster. 2-1-1 is available 7-days a week, 24-hours a day and is free and confidential for callers.