Talking to young children about COVID-19
Young children are at a developmental stage where they are frequent and persistent in their asking of questions about the world around them, and early childhood education professionals are often the ones answering them.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers and assistants facing the challenge of how to appropriately answer the questions their students may be asking right now and the changes they are experiencing.
It is important to communicate with children about COVID-19 and share relevant information in order to help them make sense of how the virus is impacting their lives.
When children do not understand a situation, they can feel anxious and lonely.
Talking to children about challenging circumstances assists children to make sense of things they have been hearing, seeing and feeling, which helps them cope and feel prepared.
Furthermore, explaining to children why the community is taking certain actions in response to the virus helps reassure them, promoting positivity and hope.
Tips for talking to children about COVID-19
• Check in with yourself before you begin the discussion with the child, ensuring you are mentally prepared for the questions that might arise and have accurate, up-to-date information to share with the child. If you feel unprepared, it is best to delay the discussion until you have had a chance to reduce your own anxiety and you are feeling confident and educated about the topic to address the child’s questions and concerns.
• Remember that every child will respond differently to the stress and worry caused by the current crisis. Behavioural changes may occur in children and manifest differently in each child. Sleeping and eating difficulties, clinginess, anger, withdrawal, sadness and curiosity are all examples of valid behaviours and emotions children might display. Some children will not be bothered or interested and will adjust quickly to any changes, whereas others may have an extensive list of questions about COVID-19.
• Ask open questions and start by gently inviting the child to talk freely about the issue to find out what they already know and take your cues from there. Find out if they have noticed any changes around them and listen to any fears or worries they may have. Acknowledge the child’s feelings and explain to them that it is normal to feel scared or worried about unknown situations.
• Keep the discussion age appropriate. If they are very young and unaware of COVID-19, you might not need to raise the topic for discussion: instead use it as an opportunity to reinforce good hygiene practices. Answer all questions honestly and as simply as you can by sticking to the facts and avoiding unnecessary graphic details. Monitor how they react to your answers and be sensitive to their anxiety levels. Correct misconceptions the child may have but if you are unsure of something they ask, tell them you are not sure but will try to find out and inform them.
• If the child is too young to talk or express themselves verbally, encourage them to express their feelings and communicate creatively through other means i.e. drawing, singing or playing.
• Remind the child you are here for them and they can talk to you about anything that is of concern or confusing to them. Reassure them that the adults in their life and the wider community are doing things to keep them safe from harm and that you are available to help.
• Teach them how to protect themselves and those around them. Reinforce the importance of good hygiene and regular handwashing. The Wiggles have made a video encouraging children to wash their hands. Show them how to cover coughs and sneezes with their elbow hygienically and explain that it is best they do not get too close to people showing cold or flu-like symptoms.
• Promote hope by talking to children about the wonderful work being done by other members of the community and share stories of health workers, scientists, charities who are working hard to help keep everyone safe. Encourage children to be especially kind and patient with others who might be feeling more upset or anxious than usual.
This article has been based on advice from Emerging Minds, UNICEF Australia and In Home Care.
Emerging Minds have published a resource with information about communicating with children which lists common questions children might ask and examples of how you can answer them.
Unicef Australia have written an article providing advice about supporting children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For further information on how you can help children cope during COVID-19, In Home Care have compiled a list of resources which can help.