How to talk to your children about the coronavirus

Answer your child’s questions during a time of such uncertainty can be difficult. UCHealth family medicine physician provides some helpful tips.
March 26th, 2020
woman reading to a child in bed, one way in talking to children about coronavirus.
Before talking to children about the coronavirus, it is important that you make the answers that you are giving as age-appropriate as you can. Photo: Getty Images.

With the constant media chatter, schools closed, and playdates and museum visits canceled, kids will naturally have questions about the coronavirus and COVID-19.

It can be challenging for parents — none of them experts on coping with a worldwide pandemic — to try to explain what is happening.

headshot of Dr. Richard Payden, who gives advice on talking with children about coronavirus.
Dr. Richard Payden, a family medicine physician at UCHealth Primary Care – Estes Park.

Dr. Richard Payden, a family medicine physician at UCHealth Primary Care – Estes Park, shares important concepts to consider when speaking with children about the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Know your audience

“One of the most important factors when discussing something with a child is realizing that they are not always thinking in the same way that you are,” Payden said.

Some children take things very literally, while others may let their imaginations run wild with all the facts. Neither is a good or bad way of responding, only important to consider.

“Before answering any of the questions about a topic as significant as coronavirus or the disease caused by it, COVID-19, it is important that you make the answers that you are giving as age-appropriate as you can.”

Should I always tell the truth to my child about coronavirus, even if they are asking questions with difficult answers?

“I don’t believe that lying to a child is a good thing to do,” Payden said. “I think it is important that you craft your answer in a way that will inform your child of the pertinent facts needed to answer the question, but also keeping in mind that they may not fully comprehend the gravity of some of their questions.”

How can I relate what is going on with the coronavirus to other events in my child’s life?

Children often understand situations better when they are compared to something that rings familiar.

For example, children in Colorado often deal with snowstorms that close schools and make going outside risky. Payden said he’d explain it like this:

“If a snowstorm comes in over the mountains, it can be dangerous. If you do all the right things to prepare for the storm, then you should be OK. However, it can still be dangerous if you go outside and expose yourself to the storm — much like how it is better not to go to school or stores and risk exposing yourself to the virus.

“And the cold can be more dangerous for older people than it is for younger people, just as the virus is more dangerous for older people than it is for younger people.”grandfather talking about coronavirus with a child.

Payden provides more advice for parents talking to their children about coronavirus:

What is coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a germ that in most people will cause a cold, and it is around every year in the winter,” Payden said. “This year there is a new type of coronavirus. And this particular germ can make people sick enough that they may have to go to the hospital.”

Learn more about viruses with this virus 101 article.

How do I not get the coronavirus?

Coronavirus is spread through what are called respiratory droplets. These droplets are made when people cough, sneeze, have runny noses, or even when they speak. These droplets can then spread to other people, giving them the virus. But there are things people can do to help stop the virus from going from one person to the next.”

By teaching them how they can help stop the spread of the coronavirus, you can help your children feel empowered:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This is especially important when you cough, sneeze, or blow your nose.

“If your child cannot count to 20, sing the first verse of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ with them,” Payden suggested.

And if you need to mix it up, two verses of the “Happy Birthday” song or one time through the “Alphabet” song will also work.

kids laughing while washing their hands, important in preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Washing hands is an important point to make when talking to children about the coronavirus, but there are fun ways you can teach them to wash effectively. Photo: Getty Images.

“The group Pinkfong, makers of the song ‘Baby Shark,’ have come out with a ‘Baby Shark, Wash Your Hands’ video teaching kids how to wash their hands properly in a fun sing-along version,” Payden added.

  • Stay home as much as possible. This is important so that people don’t run into other people with the virus and spread it.
  • When out and about, try to keep a distance of 6 feet from others. Learn more about physical distancing, also called social distancing.

“This is why schools have been canceled and most stores are closed at this time,” Payden said. “This is helping keep many people from getting together in the same area with very little space between them.”

How will I feel if I get coronavirus?

Children sick with COVID-19 most often present with symptoms similar to the cold or flu — runny nose, cough or fever. However, COVID-19 can be more serious for children with certain lung or immune problems. The same is true of adults with these conditions and people over the age of 60.

“If you are to get sick, then you should make sure to stay away from other people, except for the people who are caring for you,” Payden said.

Learn more about what to do if you think you have COVID-19.

Is it necessary to wear masks if I am not sick?

People who are not sick with COVID-19 are not better protected from the virus if they wear a mask, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, if people who do have symptoms of COVID-19 wear a mask, it can help prevent those around them from getting the virus.

“There are certain people like nurses and doctors that are wearing masks, but this is so they do not transfer the virus from one sick person to another,” he said. “They also have special types of masks that they can wear to prevent them from getting the virus.”

What happens if older people, like grandma or grandpa, get the virus?

Older adults and people with weak immune systems are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, which could result in hospitalization.

“It’s important that everyone try to avoid going near older adults when they are sick,” Payden said. “This will help stop the virus from reaching them and getting them sick.”

Now that our family is staying home, what should be my focus when it comes to my children?

Less screen time:

“While children may be home a lot more during this pandemic, they should still be sticking with the recommended amounts of screen time,” Payden said.

Coronavirus: A book for Children is a free, downloadable book

Screen time includes television, computer, video games, phones and tablets. According to the World Health Organization, daily recommended screen times include:

  • No screen time for children under 2 years of age.
  • Children 2-5 years of age get less than one hour of screen time.
  • Children 5-17 years of age have less than two hours of screen time.

Payden said that more recent research has shown that less time may be even better, as children consistently getting above these recommendations have higher risks of depression, anxiety and obesity in adulthood.

“A good substitute for screens is reading, games, cards, or activities,” he said.

More activity:

kids gardening with their parent.
Get kids involved outside during this time. Photo: Getty Images

“Activity in this regard means physical activity,” Payden said. “It is important for a growing child to get plenty of activity.”

The current recommendations for the minimum amount of activity — where a child is up and being physically active — is one hour per day.

“I feel that this should be easily attainable, especially as now there is ample time for activity with the reduced schedules for school as well as fewer leisure activities available given all of the closures throughout the country,” he said.

Healthy eating:

Healthy eating habits are always important, Payden said.

“Recent studies have found that children tend to model their parents when it comes to their lifestyles,” he added. “So, it is important to make sure that everyone in the household is eating healthy.”

He recommends eating more fruits and vegetables, and less meat. Shop the outer aisles of the store — but skip the bakery and deli —to focus on fresh and whole foods rather than processed foods. Frozen fruits and vegetables are good choices, too, as they are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts yet often less expensive, Payden said.

“I like to think of grocery shopping as making a lap around the outskirts of the store while avoiding the center aisles as much as possible,” he said.

For all updates and to read more articles about the new coronavirus, please visit uchealth.org/covid19

Taking care of your children also means taking care of yourself. Read more about curbing anxiety during this time as well as healthy activities for grown-ups during a pandemic. Get local and factual information on the coronavirus and COVID-19 at uchealth.org/covid19.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.