A counsellor explains how to keep kids informed without worrying them more.
For many adults across the globe, the threat of coronavirus is the most pressing issue at the minute – one we really can’t get away from. While we have rolling news channels and social media feeds to keep up constantly abreast of the latest developments, our children aren’t quite so in the loop. That doesn’t mean, though, that they aren’t aware of the distressing situation, or that they don’t have concerns of their own that need working through.
Talking to children about coronavirus might seem hard when it comes to knowing what’s best to say, how and when. But don’t let that put you off, because it’s important that conversation happens. Here, Peter Saddington, a counsellor working for Relate in The Midlands, shares his advice for keeping children informed while always reassuring them.
How informed should you keep your child?
How informed you choose to keep your child does depend on the age and their age and nature, according to Peter.
“Not every child is growing up in a household where everything has been normal up until now. If they’ve had a parent, sibling or grandparent who’s died they might be more anxious than a child who’s never experienced anything like that. It’s got to be unique to your child and your circumstances.
“Children will be hearing about things, though, and they will be worried about it.”
Peter advises asking children what they’re worried about and what they actually know.
“Start by asking them how they are. Ask if they’re worried about the virus and check what they’ve heard in case it’s not accurate.
“You’ll make them more worried by not talking about it, so it’s better to talk about it. Showing empathy is important, too. It is scary times and something people worry about, so it is about explaining to children the normality of being anxious or worried about not knowing all the information or what’s going to happen
“You can start explaining the facts and dispelling myths to reassure them. One of the facts that’s out now is that children generally recover very quickly from it,” Peter said.
“If they’re much younger you might say: ‘It’s not a nice illness, it’s unlikely you’ll catch it, and there are things we can do to protect you.’
“If they’re older and able to understand then it’s saying: ‘This is something lots of something people will get but there’s a lot we can do to protect ourselves against it, it’s a bit like flu or other serious illnesses that have been around – lots of people get it and lots of people recover from it.’”
How to approach the conversation
“If your child is worried or comes to ask you questions, that’s the best time to talk about it. If they’re worried and they brought it up – don’t put them off. If they’ve brought it up it’s because they’re worried,” Peter said.
“If they haven’t brought it up but it’s being talked about, then I’d make a point of turning the telly off, making sure there are no distractions and saying: ‘This virus is being talked about, is it a good time to talk about it now? You and I?’
“I’d do it not when it’s close to bedtime, you don’t want them going to bed worried. Do it during the day, when there’s plenty of time for thoughts to percolate through and if they have more questions later on, they have time to ask.
“In terms of setting, you’re much better doing it at home if you can rather than while out shopping or when you’re driving, because you can sit down, see the child’s response, see whether they’re getting agitated or if they’re looking really worried. If you’re doing it while you’re driving or somewhere else, you won’t necessarily pick up on those cues so your child will still be worried about it,” he said.
“You want to be factual, and you want treat it seriously. You want an ordinary level tone, you don’t want to say: ‘Everything’s going to be dreadful’ or ‘Everything’s going to be fine.’ Your child knows neither of those is true, you’re better to just be factual but be positive. Tell them that provided we’re careful and wash our hands, we should be okay.”
Talk about social media
“Tell your children that if they’re worried about things they’ve seen on social media, they should come and talk to you. And secondly, if someone contacts them on social media because they have the infection or they’re worried about something, they should come and talk to you rather than feeling they’ve got to take responsibility for someone else.
“All the time it’s: ‘Come back and talk to us.’ You’re making it so your child feels they’re not going to be treated as though they’re silly and you’re not making judgements about them. You’re on their side and will listen to what they have to say, so they’ll come and talk to you about what they’re worried about which is a much better place to be than children keeping it quiet.
How much should you tell your child about your worries?
“The adults need to deal with the adult things, and the children shouldn’t be involved in doing that. If you’re worried about your parents, their grandparents, you could mention to your children: ‘I’m a bit worried about Nana and Grandad – we might need to spend a bit of time with them.’ You wouldn’t be talking about your fears the health service isn’t working because you’re going to give them fears they won’t understand or know how to deal with. As much as possible, you don’t expose children to adult fears and anxieties,” Peter advised.
How to help a child who’s really worrying
“Sit them down, ask what it is they’re actually worried about. Quite often it’s misunderstandings more than anything else. Once you know the actual worry they’ve got, you can go through what’s real and what’s not real and make sure they do know the facts.
“It’s a bit like a cracked record, you just have to keep offering reassurance. The likelihood is that they’re going to be worrying about parents dying (in which case they’d be abandoned) or that they’re going to become really ill and they’re not going to recover.
“Talk to them about the eventuality of them becoming ill – tell them you’d look after them and that there’s medical support out there. And if they’re worrying about you, their parents, tell them you’re looking after yourself and keeping yourself safe. Tell them that even if something were to happen to mum or dad there would always be people here to make sure they’re okay. Keep reassuring them that everything’s going to be okay.
“Parents don’t know that for certain, but if children are worried, don’t give them any other anxieties,” Peter said.
Don’t be hard on yourself
“As a parent, you just have to do as well as you can. There’s no perfect way of doing it. There’s no judgement made against it. You’re doing the best you can, sometimes you’ll get it wrong, a lot of times you’ll get it right. If you feel you need help, make sure you do speak to partners, friends, parents to get the reassurance you need,” Peter said.
“These are unique times, we haven’t got much of a history we can look back over the past 20 or 30 years where other people know what to do. So everybody is anxious and unsure about what’s going to happen. What generally helps when you have worries is talking about it. You won’t necessarily get all of the answers but by doing this you put your worries into a more realistic frame. When you start saying it out loud you realise how much of it is just anxiety.”
Be prepared for more change
“Things are going to change, for instance if schools close. You’re going to have children at home, away from their friends. Children will probably be using social media much more because they’re going to be bored and want contact with their friends during that time,” Peter said.
“You might want to make it a daily check in, asking: ‘How are you and your friends?’ so that you can keep on top of what’s going on. If there are any underlying fears or worries it comes out more naturally.”