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Advice for talking to children about COVID-19

Robert Houk • Mar 15, 2020 at 7:30 AM

Fears parents have about the spread of novel coronavirus don’t go unnoticed by their children.

“We should remember that children know and see more than we often think,” said Dr. Diana Morelen, an assistant professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Psychology. “They hear things that can be scary. So sometimes talking about it will help a child feel safer.”

She said parents should talk “honestly and calmly” to their children about COVID-19. Those conversations should go hand-in-hand with maintaining family routines, such as sticking to regular mealtimes and bedtimes.

“It all starts at home with routine,” Morelen said. “Kids feel safe with routine.”

She said parents should limit their children’s exposure to media coverage that could exacerbate their fears about COVID-19.

“I would encourage parents to keep things as normal as they can when the world is not normal,” she said. 

Morelen said parents need to be “patient and curious” when answering questions about COVID-19.

“Keep it simple,” she said. “Simple explanations can help children make sense of the world.”

It’s also important to recognize how children react to stress. Morelen said some will cry more, others might become non-attentive.

“So when children have big fears, they have big behaviors,” she said. “Talk to children about how they are feeling.”

Morelen notes that parents must also address their own fears about coronavirus. She said it’s important that adults are “proactive” about dealing with stress.

“Parents can’t take care of their kids if they are not taking care of themselves,”  she said. “They need to reach out for help to reduce stress.”

There are a number of positive activities that Morelen said can help adults “engage in self care,” such as exercise, reading a book and talking to loved ones.

“Being surrounded by fear can be emotionally draining,” she said. “We need to lower that stress to recharge our emotions.” 

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