NEWS | April 22, 2020

UC Davis pediatrician shares tips on talking with children about coronavirus


As families continue to navigate this current COVID-19 pandemic, UC Davis pediatrician Ellen McCleery acknowledges it is a stressful time for children and adults alike. She recommends that parents be available to talk about the pandemic and answer questions when kids are ready.

 Parents should be available to answer children's questions about COVID-19. Parents should be available to answer children's questions about COVID-19.

“Kids might not want to think about what is happening and that is okay. If your children approach you with questions or fears, talk openly about their concerns,” McCleery said.

McCleery offers the following tips for those conversations, as adapted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

  • Answer honestly, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”
  • Validate kids’ thoughts and fears.
  • Keep in mind that children learn how to deal with stress by watching the adults around them.
  • Look for accurate information from public health authorities or established news outlets.
  • Take a break from the news. Be careful about any frightening images that may appear on the news.
  • Talk about all the helpers who are working to care for people.
  • Pay attention to signs that a child may need additional help from a mental health professional:
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Invasive thoughts or worries
    • Recurring fears
    • Reluctance to leave parents
  • If your child has experienced loss or serious illness during the outbreak, they may need additional support.
  • NPR produced a comic exploring some common kids’ questions about COVID-19. It is also available in Chinese and Spanish:
  • Specific answers to questions a young child might ask (including “Why is that person wearing a mask?” and “Will I get sick?”) can be found here:

McCleery also recommends the following, which are adapted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

  • Children may act out when they are bored or frustrated. Try to prevent this as much as you can by establishing a schedule or routine and trying new activities frequently.
  • While a routine is helpful for you and your children, also try to be flexible and patient when your child doesn’t want to participate.
  • Talk to kids about their fears.
  • Give kids choices when you can and it is safe. Have them choose between two different activities or what they’d like to help make for dinner.
  • Encourage kids to learn about something new.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends via phone or video chat.
  • Talk about and plan activities to do as a family when we return to ‘normal.’
  • When disciplining, use time-outs, redirect bad behavior, praise good behavior and successes and know when not to respond. Always avoid physical punishment.
  • Take care of yourself as a caregiver. Take turns watching children, if possible. Walk away for a few minutes if you need a break and children are safe. Get enough sleep and eat well. If you are experiencing your own stress and feel that you need additional help, call your own doctor’s office to ask about mental health support.
    • You can contact a trained counselor at SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting TalkWithUs to 66746.

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