How to speak to your children about Covid-19

During the last couple of months the lives of children all over the world has changed. Not only are there rapid inclines in child related violence, there is also a worldwide pandemic called the Corona Virus, or Covid-19. The news and social media are filled with horrific stories regarding this illness and regarding the amounts of people that died as a result of this illness. About a month ago the amount of cases in South-Africa had risen, to the point where all the schools shut down and the children were sent home. In an instant, a lot changed for our children. They see parents, communities, provinces and countries live in fear. As a counselor I’m not sure if we realized the impact that all of this could have on the children of our country but if we stop and think about it, the children are terrified. During a session with a child, she stated to me that she is having recurrent nightmares about dying from Covid-19. I realized that with all the panic, we created anxious and fearful children and that most of them have no idea how to handle what they are feeling. We at FAMSA Pretoria decided to write an article helping parents in talking to their children about Covid-19 in order to reduce the amount of fear and anxiety that they are currently experiencing.

The first issue here is that predictability, structure and routine was suddenly changed for most children in our country. Children depend on a good structure and a predictable routine to feel safe and secure. With the sudden changes caused by Covid-19, what children experienced as “normal” was suddenly changed. All the predictability was taken out of their lives. My first recommendation would thus be to create a new predictable structure and routine at home.

This doesn’t have to be as strict as a school routine but having structure will bring down a child’s general anxiety and uncertainty. We can’t control the uncertainty that Covid-19 has been causing in our country but we can control how we react to it as adults. Bring predictability back into your home by creating new charts, calendars and chores. Remember that children struggle to contextualize time so make time concrete by using concrete methods like charts in order to help your child “control” time. This can be a fun activity to do with your children during this lock down period. Get creative and make it child friendly. 

The second issue that I’ve identified is that all the adults that the children would usually look to for guidance and support are suddenly acting very anxious, fearful and uncertain. Imagine the shock when a child realizes that the adult, that they look to for comfort, is acting like a scared child. The children are scared and anxious because the adults are scared and anxious. During times of crisis it is recommended that parents first manage their own emotions to ensure that they are not projecting anxiety onto their child, and then identify and validate their child’s feelings. Here are some general tips for managing Covid-19 related anxiety:

  • Avoid excessive exposure to social media
  • Connect through calls, text and internet
  • Add time for daily stress relief
  • Practice adequate self-care
  • Focus on your mental health

While we discourage making promises about uncertain outcomes, parents can redirect misconceptions about the illness, shield children from the most brutal information and brainstorm with their children about ways to feel safe. Children need to know that it is absolutely okay to be scared and that a lot of people in the world are a little scared right now, but that they are safe at home.

Here are some things that you could say to your child:

  • I am here with you. You are safe
  • What would you like to do to get rid of the “worry” energy?
  • Tell me how you are feeling? What are you worried about?
  • If we could draw/make your worry, what would it look like? What would you like to tell your worry? What do you think your worry would say back to you?
  • Let’s practice how to breath our worries away
  • What are things that we can do that will make you feel better?
  • What can you do to show yourself love and care?
  • Create virus-free time – no phones or talk about Covid-19. Just fun and active play.
  • Help them in creating a “safe-space” for them. This can be another fun and creative activity to do with your children. Physically assist them in creating/building a safe space, for example a fort or a tent. A place that when they go in there, nothing can harm them. This is especially valuable for young children and they enjoy building this space with you.

Social isolation can also have a negative impact on your children. They are not allowed to see family and friends that they were otherwise use to seeing. This can be devastating for children who have strong familial and friend relationships. Luckily we have access to technology that can still make communication possible. During this time, please make use of video calls to family and friends so that the child still feels connected to other people. This is even more important in homes that have single children. Help them stay connected – this can also be done by regular letter writing and as mentioned video calls. Children often talk to me about how important their friends are to them, so please help them stay in contact with them.

Play is children’s language. They act out pretend scenarios as a way to express concerns, ask questions, and, crucially, reshape a narrative. In a pretend scenario, children are driving the plot and can change the outcome of a scary situation or try out different solutions to a problem. During a time of crisis you might observe that your children will play out different scenarios regarding the crisis. Children do this because this is how they figure things out. Please allow for playtime where the child can be a doctor/nurse and possibly play out what they fear and worry about through fantasy. This type of play should be encouraged as it gives children a sense of control over the problems. It helps them with creativity and coping skills. It can be a way to process emotions or simply be an outlet for fun. Because children talk though play it is recommended that play be used to talk to your children about Covid-19. Make use of a story, a game or fantasy play to help your children better understand this illness and the possible impact it can have. Please keep the information age-appropriate and child friendly. 

Here are some play activity ideas:

  • Help your child understand the concept of infection and social distancing by playing “Corona Ball”. This is a game based on the rules of dodge ball. Use a ball to act as a Covid-19           molecule. You and your children take times in trying to dodge the ball as to not get infected. This is an active activity that can make children a bit more comfortable with taking control       to be safe.
  • Make use of monopoly money, suggestion sticks and things that children can buy with the monopoly money to engage them in a reward system while at home. Every suggestion has       got value and based on its value the child gets paid with monopoly money. With the money the child can buy things like snacks, small toys or even privileges like extra TV time. You         can get very creative with this.
  • Make sure that you have plenty of fun time with your children. Just play what they want to play and let them lead. Give them some control during this period. Let them also help you         with certain things like cooking or baking. Most children enjoy helping out in the kitchen and they can also learn from it.
  • Take this time to reconnect with your children. I am sure many parents are very unaware of really how disconnected they are from their children due to hectic schedules. Make use of        this time to bond, love, play and guide.
  • Don’t be scared to add academic activities for your children to do every day. The brain needs to keep learning and growing. Make use of educational toys or games during the day.           Make time for reading and learning.
  • Try to make even the most boring of chores more fun. Cleaning up can be changed into a very competitive sport and this will motivate a child to do an otherwise mundane tasks.

I hope that this article can give you some ideas on how to handle this time of crisis with your children. Always remember that self-care is important as your child needs you to be okay. Children are wonderfully resilient beings and they will bounce back from this. Children need predictability and routine; they need parents to be in control of their own emotions and to stop spreading panic; they need child-friendly and age appropriate methods of playing and learning and they need to stay connected with family and friends.

By: Lausanne Hugo

Child Counselor

FAMSA Pretoria