Tips for explaining the COVID-19 pandemic to young children

May 12, 2020 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD
young children

By now, even young children are well aware that there’s something unusual and alarming going on in the world around them. In addition to hearing parents and caregivers talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, they may also have seen disturbing images on the news or noticed that their caregivers are more anxious or sad than usual and that the family’s routine (such as parents going to work or children attending preschool) has changed.

All of these factors can increase the stress and anxiety young children experience, although the manifestation of that stress and anxiety can look different than it does in older children and adults in some cases. These behavior changes are common in young children who are stressed:

  • Regressive behavior, such as losing ground on potty training, returning to habits like thumb sucking or reliance on a comfort item like a blanket or stuffed animal, and refusing to sleep alone
  • Tantrums or crying more than usual
  • Withdrawal, which can mean being quieter than usual or not wanting to take part in activities they enjoy
  • Changes in appetite that result in eating significantly less or more than usual
  • Sleep changes, including sleeping more than usual, nightmares, or waking during the night when they used to sleep through the night
  • Reassurance seeking and clingy behavior

While the pandemic itself is alarming to older children and adults, often the root cause of stress and anxiety in young children is the lack of understanding of what’s going on and why their life has changed. It’s harder to manage and mitigate stress when you don’t know why you’re feeling sad or scared. That’s why it can be helpful to talk with your young children, in an age appropriate way, about what’s happening.

Here are some of the ways to encourage that conversation and ease your child’s anxiety:

  • Start by finding out what they know or what questions they have. Don’t overwhelm them with detailed information. Keep your answers simple and in vocabulary they’ll understand. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest. Providing incorrect information or false assurances does more harm than good in the long run. If they don’t seem to want to talk about it, don’t press them. Do let them know that whenever they have questions, they can come to you for information.
  • Let them know what the adults in their lives are doing to keep them safe. Explain that you’re staying indoors and away from others to stay away from the germs that cause this illness. Reiterate the importance of handwashing in lowering the risk of COVID-19 and have them practice the proper technique with you. You can make the task more fun by singing the birthday song with them twice to time out 20 seconds. If you have to leave home for work or to go to the grocery store, explain that you wear a mask to help keep the germs from spreading.
  • Limit exposure to media: Young children have difficulty understanding the sometimes heightened rhetoric that’s often used in the media and are likely to be upset by many of the images of the sick, so get your media information from reliable sources when you’re children are not around, for example the 11 pm news rather than the evening news or reading the news online when your children aren’t around.
  • Help them express their feelings. Creative activities such as drawing and painting and role playing with dolls or stuffed animals can allow children to express their fears or sadness rather than repressing these feelings.
  • Maintain a daily routine. A predictable routine helps young children feel more in control. Of course, that doesn’t mean each day has to be the same or that you need to follow a regimented schedule, but it is helpful to stick to regular waking and bedtimes, as well as having regular, healthy meals that bring everyone in the house together.
  • Model behaviors that can help your children manage stress. Take time to manage your own stress and anxiety, whether that’s through listening to music, doing yoga or meditation, or exercising. Invite your children to join you in these activities and explain how they help you feel better.
  • Reach out for help. If your children’s anxiety is significantly disrupting their daily life and health, consider arranging a virtual appointment with a mental health provider who can help you and your children develop coping strategies.
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