Avoid Panic – How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus

“I’m afraid I may die” my ten-year-old son quietly told me last night when I asked him about the Coronavirus. He went on to say, “I’m also afraid others might be hurt.”

Your kids may be more scared about the Coronavirus than you know. Along with calming them down and assuring them, you can use this approach to build resilience and problem-solving skills.

This five-step approach is science-backed and evidence-based, leveraging work by experts at Harvard and elsewhere.

1. Stop yourself (parent) and actively listen. Our first instinct as parents is often to go to assurance mode. While this is important, don’t do this yet. Actively listen to your kids. Even if their concerns seem silly to your adult self, really listen. Imagine you were their age for a moment if you can.

2. Confirm to your kiddo that you heard them (and potentially repeat #1). As you listen, validate your child’s emotion (empathy, not sympathy) – “honey, I can understand how that is scary to you” or “it makes sense that you would feel this way.” You aren’t agreeing with them, you are just meeting them where they are at. Studies have proven this can stop the fight/flight response in times of trauma. You may repeat the first two steps a few times.

3. Confirm that you want them to feel prepared and safe. First, ask your kids if they feel like they heard you. If not, keep repeating the first two steps. After this, confirm that you want them to feel safe and make sure they are okay. After the empathy step, they can take this in and feel safer. You have just helped your child out of fight/flight/freeze and into problem-solving in their cortex (good job!). Later in the day, you can talk about the low percentage for children contracting coronavirus – but please get through these steps first.

4. Ask your kiddos for ideas to prepare reasonably. During this step, your kids will have lots of ideas. Your job is to say “ok” or “that’s an idea” – you aren’t grading them yet. If they are stuck, you can offer ideas as a question “what about if we got another few cans of soup?” Having your kids suggest ideas supports them in resolving future issues on their own.

5. Act on their ideas (and yours). Write a list with your kids and do the items you agree to. This may even turn what was fear and panic to fun and pride. In this step, you are demonstrating how they can rise above issues and act – a great life skill.

While subtle, this approach builds more life skills for your child. They are learning how to calm themselves, express concerns, hear others, brainstorm, and take action to resolve. Great job parents!

News stories and rumors are rampant right now about this virus. It’s one of those times when everyone has an opinion. You may end up going through these five steps a few times because of this, or just the first two empathy ones.

To gain facts as a parent, we recommend your trusted medical professional or the CDC. If you catch yourself feeling panicked, do your best to identify your concerns. Giving them a name, color and texture can help. When you define it, it doesn’t have the same power. Call a friend or seek out mental health support as you need, so you can be there for your kids.

Remember, as parents, we often jump to protector mode before empathy mode. It’s a natural reaction but isn’t always the most useful in teaching skills to your kids. Do your best and remember to hear them first and then confirm that you understand them.

In doing so, you will help build a lifelong coping skill pattern for them.

As my son and I finished our conversation, he was very excited about going shopping and getting a few extra cans of his favorite chicken noodle soup, making sure he knew where our board games were located and was no longer afraid.