Easing your child’s worries about coronavirus
As the Covid-19 pandemic progresses, its effects could leave a lasting impression on ourselves and our children.
GPs have seen an increase in patients suffering from mental health difficulties related to coronavirus, and many parents are concerned about the impact of the pandemic – with school disruptions and social distancing – on their children.
They may be worried about catching the disease. They could be unsettled by switching between school and homeschool, and upset that exciting plans like school trips or going on holiday have been cancelled. And they may also be worrying about themselves or someone they love becoming unwell.
‘The fears kids will have will depend to some extent on age and how much they understand,’ says psychotherapist Noel McDermott.
‘Younger children are likely to have less specific fears, for example about not being able to see friends or do their usual activities, whereas older children may have more fears around the virus itself.’
Signs of anxiety in children of different ages
Children are not always good at talking about their feelings, so it may not be obvious that your child is feeling anxious.
‘Anxiety will be expressed behaviourally for the most part, especially in younger children,’ says Noel.
‘Look out for regression, with old behaviours that your child had grown out of coming back, as well as classic signs such as changes to sleep patterns, energy levels or appetite, and big mood shifts.
‘As the coronavirus ebbs and flows, you’re almost certainly going to witness challenging behaviours, and more arguments and tantrums.’
While all children are different, there are some common ways in which they might react to the coronavirus outbreak depending what age they are. Here's what to look out for so you can support them.
3 to 6-year olds
- Pre-school, Reception and KS1 children may begin to have toileting accidents, wet the bed or be worried about being separated from you.
7 to 10-year olds
- KS2 children might feel sad or afraid, but also angry. They might want to talk about the situation all the time, or never mention it. They are likely to have difficulty concentrating. Be aware that they might be getting inaccurate information from their peers, too – help them understand more about fake news.
Preteens and teenagers
- Preteens and young adults may retreat into themselves. They might find it hard to share overwhelming emotions and are likely to argue more with their siblings and with you.
Worry: becoming ill
Although children on the whole seem to be at less risk of Covid-19 than adults, it’s natural for them to worry about becoming ill themselves.
The key to reassuring your child about the risk of becoming ill is to give them honest, factual information.
‘Children’s fears of catching the virus can be allayed by helping them understand the infection control measures that have been put in place,’ says Noel.
You can talk about these in simple terms, explaining that soap and water kill the virus and wash it down the drain, and that catching it can be largely avoided by keeping your distance from others when outside and following the social distancing procedures.
‘Help your child to understand how they’re reducing the chances of becoming unwell, for example by washing their hands: when we feel we’re taking positive action, we feel more empowered to manage our difficult feelings,’ Noel explains.
Be aware, too, of where your child is getting their information from, especially if they use social media or are discussing the situation with their friends. The situation is changing day by day, and the 'Chinese whispers' effect can mean misinformation spreads within peer groups.
‘They’ll be getting information from all types of sources, and much of it will be inaccurate or exaggerated, so it’s important that you become a source of reliable, factual information to reduce their fears,’ Noel says.
- CBBC Newsround is a source of reliable, child-appropriate coronavirus information, such as explainer videos from Operation Ouch's Dr Chris and Dr Xand
- Show KS2 children Exploring The New Coronavirus: A Comic Just for Kids
- For upper KS2 and KS3 children, the BBC produces authoritative, child-friendly coronavirus information
- A Children's Guide to Coronavirus has been produced by the Children's Commissioner
- Download one of the brilliant (and free) digital books about coronavirus for children available online. Written in language appropriate for 5 to 9 year olds, Coronavirus: A book for children is a free digital book about the coronavirus and the measures taken to control it, with expert input from Professor Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and illustrations by Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler.
Try to use reliable sources yourself, such as the UK government's coronavirus advice, so you can talk about the situation with authority and without bias.
Worry: a loved one becoming ill
For children, the worry about a parent becoming ill and unable to function is often more distressing than worrying about becoming ill themselves.
They’re aware of how much they rely on you, and may understandably be afraid that you’ll end up in hospital and won’t be able to look after them.
The news can be scary, and children might fear the worst, but you can put the situation into context for them: most people who catch the virus have mild symptoms, so they don’t need to be afraid if a parent or sibling get it.
Explain that most grown-ups with healthy bodies don’t become seriously ill.
‘You could collect names of people who have had Covid-19 and recovered, such as Prince William and Boris Johnson, to reassure your child that most adults who get it will be fine,’ Noel advises.
But don’t belittle your child’s fears: instead, encourage them to write down or draw pictures of what they’re worried about, so you can then talk them through.
You could even help them make a plan for what would happen if you were to become ill, including things like who’d look after them and how you’d keep in touch during isolation, to make them feel more in control of their worries.
Worry: death and dying
The logical extension of your child worrying about themselves or a loved one becoming ill is that they will die.
‘Fears of dying need to be dealt with factually, in that we are not on the whole going to die from this,’ Noel advises. This is especially true now the vaccine is available, as it significantly reduces the risk of people becoming seriously unwell or hospitalised.
‘If members of your family are at higher risk, your child’s fears can be allayed through explaining how you’re using infection control measures and how good our health service is,’ Noel adds.
Encourage your child to think about what they can control, rather than what they can’t, such as washing their hands regularly and catching coughs and sneezes in a tissue – this will help them to feel they’re doing everything they can to keep themselves and their family safe.
Although it’s important to acknowledge your child’s fears, distraction can go a long way in stopping them dwelling on worst-case scenarios.
‘Learn to meditate, maintain your child’s sleeping and eating patterns, and use your outdoor exercise time well,’ suggests Noel. ‘Don't give in to fear: reassure your child that you’ll all get through this, and focus on today, rather than what might be.’
Worry: school changes
Lockdown 3 is coming to an end, which means that children are once again being affected by school changes. The majority are returning to school, but routines when they get there may seem rather different, with bubbles, social distancing and changes to how they're taught. And with Covid-19 status constantly changing, they also have the uncertainty of whether they'll stay open, or whether they'll have to self-isolate at some point due to exposure with a positive case.
‘Big transitions like these take about six weeks to process before the new normal is adapted to and accepted,’ Noel advises ‘Where possible, allow your child to help plan events, as the more empowered we feel in change, the less it will push us into negative emotional reactions.'
This could be anything from asking for your help to get on top of their home learning before returning to school, to planning their lunches for the first week back.
Worry: future lockdowns
Over the past year, children have had many disappointments: lockdown, school closures, cancelled parties and holidays, and more. And although the Prime Minister believes we can avoid future lockdowns, there is still a degree of uncertainty, which can be unsettling for kids.
‘When our are kids distressed at the losses they have from lockdown, it’s important to validate that,’ Noel says. ‘It's distressing and they should be able to feel upset about it. They had a lot to lose.’
Reassure your child that they've lived through a year of frequent and often upsetting changes, so they know what to expect if we were to have another lockdown. You can talk to them about how well they managed home learning, remind them how they've used Zoom and FaceTime to talk to friends and relatives, and discuss all the fun things you can still do at home and in your local area under Covid restrictions.
You could also help them think about activities that could act as substitutes for their usual activities during social distancing and possible future school closures: learning a new skill or sport like knitting or badminton, taking up an instrument, or taking part in live streamed clubs and classes.
Worry: the coronavirus timescale
One of the hardest things for us all to deal with is the uncertainty of the current situation. We don’t yet know whether Covid-19 will peter out, or be around for the foreseeable future. We don't know whether schools will stay open, close again or involve blended learning (online alongside school). And for children, who typically thrive on routine, this can be especially difficult.
‘The biggest fear for many children is that this situation is permanent, but it’s not,’ says Noel. We may not know the exact timescale, but we now have the hope of the vaccine, and with other measures like compulsory face coverings and school bubbles, we can hope that this wave will be brought under control quicker than the first.
In the meantime, be accepting of the fact that your child might be unsettled and anxious. Keep up with the things they enjoy (new hobbies, feel-good movies and board games) and focus on the fact that you've come through a situation no one could have foreseen. You've proven that you're stronger than you ever thought, and together, you’ll get through whatever comes next without your child’s worries – and your own – taking over.
More resources for talking to your child about coronavirus
Advice if you're worried about the coronavirus - BBC Newsround
Talking to your child about coronavirus - YoungMinds
How to cope when you can't go to school because of coronavirus - BBC Newsround
Parenting in the time of COVID-19 - World Health Organization
Coronavirus facts and advice for kids - links to websites about viruses and staying healthy from Usborne Publishing
Coronavirus cartoon - BrainPOP
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