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Coronavirus and kids: What parents need to know about the pandemic

Jennifer Larson writer headshot By | March 20, 2020
Medically reviewed by Gerardo Sison, Pharm.D.

If you feel like you’re struggling to figure out how to handle the coronavirus pandemic situation, you’re not alone. This is uncharted water for most people. 

Consider what has happened in a very short window of time. On Mar. 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, a pandemic. Two days later, a national emergency was declared in the United States in response to the spread of the virus. Stores, schools, and businesses are closing left and right, and every day seems to bring a tsunami of news. It’s a lot for anyone to handle, but how do you approach it as a parent?

“This is the first time that many of us have ever been through this,” says Susan H. Wootton, MD, an infectious disease pediatrician at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Texas. “There is a lot of learning.” 

Coronavirus in children

Coronavirus symptoms tend to be mild for children, according to the research currently available. Most cases of coronavirus have been in adults, according to the CDC. Learn more about risk at the CDC assessment page.

How to talk to your children about COVID-19

You do want your children to understand the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of preventative measures like handwashing and staying home. But you want to do it in a healthy way that doesn’t cause them to panic unnecessarily. 

First, figure out what they already know, says Beverly H. Smolyansky, Ph.D., a psychologist with Cincinnati Children’s in Ohio. Ask them if they have any questions. And then you can tailor your answers accordingly, based on your child’s age. 

Some children are naturally more anxious. But since they’re children, they may not specifically tell you that they’re anxious, says Dr. Wootton. You may want to watch out for signs that they’re feeling anxious, like a stomachache. 

However, if you know your child tends to be anxious, you may want to take some extra care in how you discuss the coronavirus pandemic situation with them. Try to dial it back if you find yourself overexplaining or focusing too much on it, Dr. Smolyansky suggests. “Don’t keep bringing it up if it’s only going to make them more anxious,” she says. 

You don’t have to give them every single detail. In fact, it’s probably best not to, experts say. But you can reassure them that the coronavirus symptoms will likely be mild, according to the research currently available. You can also reinforce the importance of doing all the preventive behaviors to help keep other people safe. 

How parents can prepare

By now, everyone’s heard the advice about the best ways to avoid spreading this novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) offer this guidance to everyone:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Use hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol if you’re away from soap and water.
  • Keep your hands away from your face.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Stay home if you think you may be sick.
  • Stay home as much as you can, i.e., embrace “social distancing.”

As parents, your job is to encourage your children to do these things. 

For example, remind your children to wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before and after entering the house, for example. Teach them how to sing “Happy Birthday” twice or another song to make sure they’re scrubbing long enough. Or, if you have to leave the house, make sure you and your kids use sanitizer. Stress the importance of these measures for reducing the chances that they’ll get sick—or make someone else sick. 

Make sure you’re explaining these actions in very positive, specific terms so that they know exactly what you’re asking them to do. 

“If we tell them what not to do, we are assuming that they know what to do instead—and they may not know,” Dr. Smolyansky says. 

RELATED: The do’s and don’ts of preparing for coronavirus

How to approach social distancing as a family

This may be a tough one for a lot of parents. You may have to tell your child that no, they can’t attend a friend’s birthday party or go to a movie or participate in a sporting event. But, there are positive ways to practice social distancing as a family:

  • Organize a movie night.
  • Clear out the family room, and make a fort. Then camp out in it.
  • FaceTime with long-distance relatives.
  • Bake something together.
  • Play a board game.
  • Do a puzzle.
  • Have a tie-dye party.

Here’s why social distancing is so important: When people stay away from each other, they reduce the chances of spreading the virus. Scientists call this “flattening the curve,” with the curve being a spike in the amount of people who contract the virus and develop a serious case of the infection. 

However, take comfort in this: Certain officials have made your job a little easier, since so many schools have closed and events have already been cancelled.  

But if you’re tempted to run out to the mall (if it’s still open), consider the message you’re sending your children. You can show them the important things to do with your own actions, says Dr. Smolyansky: “Are you doing what you are telling them to do? Are you modeling that behavior? Are you taking it seriously?”

And remember to take care of yourself in this uncertain time, too. Your children are paying attention to you, even if you think they’re not. So if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, they may realize it. “Kids pick up on our signals,” Dr. Wootton says. 

So, take care of yourself, says Dr. Smolyansky. Manage your own anxiety as best you can. Try to get some exercise. And if you need to vent, call an adult friend and discuss your concerns out of earshot of your children.