Easing your child’s worries about coronavirus
With the coronavirus outbreak showing few signs of slowing, many of us are dealing not just with our own anxieties, but also our children’s.
They may be missing school, going to the park and seeing their friends. They could be disappointed that exciting plans like birthday parties 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.
‘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 cut back on how much time they connect with their friends. 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 – and the recent death of a 13-year-old from coronavirus may have made their worries more real and intense.
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 staying at home or keeping your distance from others when outside.
‘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.
‘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 are a source of reliable, child-apprpriate 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 (BBC Bitesize's Coronavirus mythbusters: Sorting the facts from the fakes video guide is also worth watching).
- 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 Charles and Tom Hanks, 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.
‘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.’
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 closures
While initially, most children relished the thought of an extended holiday from school, as the weeks go by, many will be missing the routine of the school day, their friends and teachers, and even their work.
‘This sort of transition takes about six weeks to process before the new normal is adapted to and accepted, so get a structure in place,’ Noel advises
Some children will have lots of work sent home, and even a timetable, which may help them feel less cut adrift, but if your child is struggling with the motivation to work, cut them some slack: missing a few weeks of learning won’t harm them in the long run.
Others may have very little work, leaving them at a loose end, but you can take advantage of the many live streams, virtual experiences and online learning resources to structure their day – especially if you’re working from home and unable to supervise constantly.
‘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,’ Noel advises.
This could be anything from timetabling their ‘school day’ to planning meals for the week.
Worry: plans being cancelled
Most of us will face many disappointments in the weeks and months ahead as plans are cancelled, and this can be particularly hard on children, who are missing out on clubs, school trips, birthday parties and holidays.
‘When our are kids distressed at the losses they have from lockdown, it’s important to validate that,’ Noel says. ‘It is distressing and we should be able to feel upset about it. It’s a lot to lose.’
Try to channel your child’s disappointment into activities that can act as substitutes for the events that they’re missing out on. They could learn a new skill or sport like knitting or badminton, take up an instrument, or take part in live streamed clubs and classes.
Birthdays can be celebrated with friends and family via video link, with the promise of a party or special event once lockdown is over.
You could even pitch a tent in the back garden and have a sleep-out under canvas in lieu of a family holiday.
‘Focus on what you do have, use gratitude, keep busy,’ Noel advises.
Worry: missing friends and family
Social distancing can be upsetting for children who enjoy spending time with friends, grandparents and other relatives.
Thankfully, technology can help us keep in touch. Your child could talk to their grandparents on FaceTime or Skype, and arrange a regular time to catch up with friends through Google Hangouts or Zoom.
If you’re within walking distance of friends or family, you could take a walk to their house and wave hello through the window.
This is a great time to revive the art of letter writing, too – receiving mail with their name on will give your child a lift. And why not encourage them to start on a family heritage project, for example writing a biography of a family member or friend?
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 when schools will reopen, or whether we’ll be able to have a summer holiday. And for children, who typically thrive on routine, this can be especially difficult.
‘The biggest fear for many children will be that this situation is permanent, but it’s not: things will get back to normal,’ says Noel.
‘We may not know the exact timescale, but you can tell your child that in three months, we’ll most likely begin the process of getting back to normal, after six months that will mostly be achieved, and after one year it will be behind us.
‘But recognise that it’s difficult for kids to understand that this is time limited: to them it will feel, so consolation and comfort are vital.’
Don’t underestimate the value of extra hugs, feel-good movies and board games: use this time to focus on closeness, and together, you’ll get through it 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