Coverage of coronavirus is everywhere in the media and children in care are likely to have heard about it. Acknowledging some level of concern with children can help them cope and lead to children taking actions that reduce the risk of illness. It is crucial that we help children cope with anxiety by providing accurate prevention information and facts without causing panic.
Preparing yourself – staying ‘self-aware’
When talking to children, it is important to be aware of your own psychological state as children will react to both what you say to them and how you say it. Think about your body language – use an even tone, steady pace of voice and relaxed stance.
Your focus should be to reassure the child or young person and help them understand that there are measures we can all take to reduce the chance of being infected.
Listen, and offer reassurance
Let the child talk about their feelings (especially anxiety) and help them move on from anxiety to what they could be doing. Children may need extra attention and reassurance at times like these so please make yourself available as much as possible. Avoid negative comments, such as blaming certain people or races, and make it clear that we need to be kind and support each other.
Regularly check that what you’re saying makes sense to the child or young person.
Limit exposure to coronavirus coverage
As much as possible, try to limit media and social media exposure (especially for young children) as this can feed into the anxiety and often contain information that is unhelpful or inaccurate. Information that is designed to be informative for adults can be developmentally inappropriate for children.
Maintaining children’s routine (as much as possible) can be reassuring at a stressful period like this.
It may also be helpful to give children a sense of hope by highlighting all the hard work people are putting in to limit the impact of coronavirus.
Talking to children
Acknowledge that many people are worried about coronavirus at the moment and there is a lot of change happening (such as not knowing if extra-curricular activities are still going ahead). You can then go on to provide a brief explanation of coronavirus.
It’s best to be honest, stick to the facts and draw links to what may be familiar to a child. For example, you could start by saying that there’s a new sickness/illness around the place and ask the child if they’ve heard about it. This provides you with an opening to assess the child’s current level of understanding regarding coronavirus, fears/anxiety and any misconceptions. For younger children, consider using this booklet to assess their current understanding and feelings.
You may want to provide a brief explanation of coronavirus:
“Coronavirus is a sickness that can make us cough or have shortness of breath (like we’re out of breath after running for a long time). Many people who get coronavirus also experience a fever, which is a word we use when people feel really hot or really cold for no reason. Some people have symptoms not that different from a cold, while others can get really unwell and may need to go to hospital.”
Now that you’ve provided a brief explanation of coronavirus and its symptoms, you can turn to what can be done to reduce risk of getting infected. Reassure them that children are generally less likely to get sick, and that adults around them are trying their best to keep them safe and healthy.
It is important to also address worries they may have beyond getting sick, such as people losing their jobs, images of shops running out of food and restrictions on the movement of people.
Tell them that not everyone will get infected and that it is important not to jump conclusions about who may or may not have the virus.
You can then discuss with the child that there are things they can do to stay healthy and avoid spreading coronavirus:
- Limit how much close contact they have with others, such as not shaking hands, hugging and high fiving others.
- Stay home if they’re sick.
- Cover their cough or sneeze in their elbow or a tissue (and then throw away the tissue).
- Try to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible.
- Wash their hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It can help to count down or sing a song (eg ‘Happy Birthday’, twice through) to make sure they’re washing for the required 20 seconds. This does not need to be a scary conversation - Sing along with The Wiggles or follow this dance to make it fun.
- If there is no soap then use hand sanitiser.
- Clean and disinfect things that they touch frequently (with adult help if needed) like phones, door handles and light switches.
The Wiggles have produced a song aimed at educating children about social distancing.
Want to know more?
- The Australian Childhood Foundation has made this visual poster about staying connected with our children.
- UNICEF has published easy-to-follow information for adults who need to talk to children and young people about coronavirus.
- The federal Department of Health shared this video about talking to children about coronavirus from the Child Mind Institute.
- The World Health Organisation has a useful fact sheet about helping children cope with stress during the outbreak.
- The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare has resources to support carers, including how to talk to children, learning at home and mental health resources.
- The Australian Psychological Society has released tips for coping with anxiety and social isolation, including for children, during coronavirus.
- Support for children in care lists a range of counselling services for children. Counselling support services for adults including carers are also listed.
- Raising Children has information for families and carers about coronavirus, how to talk to children and how to manage social distancing.
If you need support as a carer, please contact your carer support worker in the first instance.