Coronavirus: Reassuring your child about the unknown
Published: 23 March, 2020
Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Psychologist at Black Dog Institute shares some helpful tips and strategies to reduce COVID-19 related anxiety in children and explains how to support their wellbeing during this time.
It’s not just grown-ups worrying about the Coronavirus and the changes happening day by day. As parents it is important we listen to the questions coming from our children and that we offer clear and honest answers. It’s also OK to admit we don’t know the answers. Much better to do that, than pretend we know the right response.
Remember, our children will be picking up information from their peers, the media, and what they are observing in the streets and shops. It is our roles as parents to make sure we don’t unnecessarily add to their anxiety and tailor information to their age and developmental stage so we can be sure they have understood.
Guidelines for talking to children about Novel Coronavirus
Speak to them calmly and openly. Try not to wrap them up in cotton wool but at the same time choose your words carefully. Saying that it is a ‘pandemic never seen before in our lifetimes’ does not help to calm your child.
Encourage them to ask questions.
Ask them to share with you what they know and what they are worried about. Agree with them if you have the same concerns but also offer reassurance and set up a plan to help deal or cope with that worry.
Reassure them it’s normal to be worried about the coronavirus and that most people feel a little concerned.
Provide reassurance that as young people, they are relatively safe. The (current) data suggests that while young people have just as much chance of catching the virus, they are unlikely to get very sick and even less likely to be hospitalised.
Let them know that you will be available to talk to them about their worries whenever they would like to and if they think of questions after your chat, they can just come and ask them anytime.
Identify some key responsible adults in their life they can talk to if they are feeling worried.
Choose one reputable website to get your information from (such as the Department of Health) and resist temptation to look at more sensational sources.
Let them know what plans are in place to keep their family safe and encourage regular safe contact with loved ones (e.g., video chat with grandparents).
Practical strategies that can be taken to reduce Coronavrius related anxiety
Provide a sense of control by discussing and implementing practical steps your child can take to stay safe. These may include:
- Regular handwashing for 20 seconds. They can sing ‘Happy Birthday’ through twice and it will be the right length.
- Cough and sneeze into elbows. For younger kids tell them to pretend to be elephants as they do.
- Give them new chores so they feel able to help keep control. Things such as cleaning down areas at home each night or helping to prepare food will give them great responsibility.
- Limit unhelpful or excessive media exposure which can often increase anxiety.
General tips to support your child’s wellbeing during this time
Remaining active is very important for mental health and wellbeing. Many school sporting competitions have been postponed and substitute activities like going outside for walks or doing online exercise programs are great options (yoga, Zumba).
Make sure you join in with the fun. It can be hard if you’re not feeling well yourself or if you’re having to make lots of decisions about changing your routine, but remember your child is looking to you to know how to behave. Show them there is still time for fun.
Encourage communication with friends using virtual formats when face-to-face isn’t an option.
Develop a plan with your child about their schooling over the coming weeks. This will need to be done in collaboration with their schools, but it will be reassuring for them to know that there is a plan, even if it needs to be adapted at a later date.
Help your child to get enough sleep. You can do this by limiting the use of screens late in the evening and encourage your child to start a wind down routine about an hour before they head to bed. This helps them prepare their body and mind for sleep.
Seeking additional help
If your child or teenager is experiencing anxiety that is very distressing to them or interfering with their ability to function, it is important to seek additional support. There are digital tools and helplines listed below that you could recommend. If you are struggling with anxiety yourself, you can find more information here.
If you have significant concerns about your child and want some professional help, can get a referral to a psychologist or mental health professional through your GP. It’s best to contact your GP over the phone first and they will let you know how to proceed. Many psychologists are now offering their services using tele-health (online formats).
Here is a list of online resources and tools for young people:
Kids Helpline | 1800 55 1800 | visit website
Beyondblue | 1300 22 4636 | visit website
eHeadspace | visit website
BiteBack | visit website
Headspace | COVID specific resources | visit website
Brave online | free online anxiety program | visit website
Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler is based at the Black Dog Institute as a Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Psychologist. She is also a mum. At work, she researches the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety in young people and investigates ways to facilitate the implementation of evidence based mental health programs within the school system.
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)