Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

How to Talk to Kids About COVID-19

March 24, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic is an understandably scary topic for kids. We asked Los Angeles psychologist Dr. Nina Tepper, who specializes in children, adolescents, parenting, and treatment for anxiety disorders, how adults can help.

Milken Family Foundation: The news about COVID-19 is scary. How should we talk to younger kids about what’s going on?

Dr. Nina Tepper: We are being bombarded with news about COVID-19, including talk of “numbers of deaths.” While as adults we are drawn to these constant updates, much of it is potentially very scary for younger children. Turn off the news in your car and the TV in your house when children are near. Resist talking to other adults about COVID-19 in front of your kids.

Younger children only need to know the basics: There is an illness going around, it’s like a flu, it’s highly contagious so we need to wash our hands a lot and stay away from people who might be sick without knowing it. Kids need reassurance from adults: “It’s our job to keep you safe. We will make sure to follow all the advice of the doctors and experts. Our family is very strong and healthy so we should all be just fine.” Keep up comforting daily routines such as bedtime stories, and give lots of hugs.

MFF: Schools are closed, and it might be a while before they’re open again. What can parents do to normalize the situation?

Dr. Tepper: School is kids’ second home, and having it suddenly close is quite disorienting and confusing. Kids are likely to feel unmoored and anxious. Parents should try to get them to communicate about how they are feeling and validate their emotions. Sticking to a daily routine as much like school as possible will help normalize things, rather than letting them sleep all morning and watch TV late into the night.

Remember that socializing with peers is kids’ and teens’ primary interest, so allow them to text and video chat with friends a lot, as long as they’ve met their academic and household responsibilities. Older kids also need reassurance that eventually everything will return to normal. Family dinners are a wonderful way to check in with kids about their emotional state.

MFF: How do we convince teens to stay safe and comply with social distancing and isolation requirements?

Dr. Tepper: For older teens with more autonomy, especially those with a driver’s license, it’s challenging to make decisions about restricting their activities. If you decide not to let them see friends and/or state or local restrictions are in place, explain that your family’s health and safety is the highest priority right now. Reassure them that soon enough things will return to normal and they will be able to make up for lost time. If you allow them to visit with friends, make sure to get permission from the friends’ parents first.

Be prepared for some resistance from teens to these new rules. Today’s teens are the information generation, so give them articles and data to support your restrictions.

MFF: High school seniors are likely to miss out on important end-of-year milestones. What can we do to support them?

Dr. Tepper: High school seniors are likely to be feeling sad and disappointed about missing important rites of passages such as prom, final concerts, senior trips and graduation. These special events have been stolen from them by a somewhat intangible phenomenon. This can lead to a feeling of loss of control, on top of their existing anxiety about leaving home and going to college. Tell them that having anxiety is normal right now. Help them channel these difficult emotions into learning about and following health guidelines on a more adult level.

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