While I am no expert, I am a mother of four and a family physician, so I do my fair share of communicating complex and scientific topics with children. There are a few tricks to doing this successfully, and though they are simple, they can be tough for us grown-ups to do. Luckily, children are very forgiving and open-minded when having difficult conversations – they are usually just grateful to be included in them.
1. Open the conversation by asking them what they know.
Depending on the age of the child, they will have different knowledge, understanding, and concerns. Often kids have heard snippets on the news or from friends and have formed an inaccurate picture of the situation. To have a conversation, you need to first be on the same page, and this gets you there. Let them guide the conversation as much as possible.
2. Answer their questions
What worries us may not worry them, and children may have deep fears which we would not have been able to guess. Address their questions as directly and concisely as possible. For example:
Child: What does the virus do to you?
Parent: It gives people fever and a cough and makes them very uncomfortable.
Be silent while they absorb the information and ask if they have further questions. Only once they run out of questions is it your turn to add a point or two if you like, but no more. Keep it short. They will come back for more when they are ready.
3. Be honest
Kids know when we lie and they respect our honesty. This is a challenging conversation because we may ourselves be afraid of these questions, but do not want to scare our children by sharing that with them. I suggest dialogue which validates their emotions but empowers the kids with what we are able to control. Some examples:
Child: Are we going to get sick?
Parent: I hope not. We are going to do our best to stay healthy by washing our hands well with soap while we sing the ABCs.
- For an older child: Its possible, but the handwashing, avoiding touching face, and social separation help a lot to decrease that chance.
Child: Could we die from it?
Parent: That’s not likely. Kids like you have strong immune systems to fight off the virus.
- For an older child: The vast majority of people who catch it, recover and do well.
4. Validate their feelings
Sometimes the questions that concern children will seem self-centered or unimportant. Kids view the world differently from adults. We need to meet them where they are. Don’t belittle their concerns.
Child: But I wanted to go to the birthday party!
Parent: I know you did. It feels so unfair to have to cancel things we wanted to do.
- For an older child: I know you did, how disappointing. I felt frustrated when I had to cancel my trip, so I know how you feel.
Child: I’m scared
Parent: I’m a little scared too. Its normal to feel that way. If you ever feel scared, you can discuss it with me / sit on my lap and get snuggles. We are here for you.
5. Leave the door open
Let them know you are available for their concerns, whatever they are, whenever needed. Open lines of communication allow you to help your child make sense of this period in their lives. We are modeling for them acceptance of emotions, coping with things out of our control, and communication – What it means to be an adult.