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Many of us are frightened or overwhelmed right now, and children know that. It isn’t a matter of “if” they notice, but a matter of “when”.

Teachers and parents alike have struggled with talking to their children about big, overwhelming topics since the dawn of time. It’s not new, although this particular situation is new for all of us. We gathered some advice from several sources to help guide your conversations with students and your own young children.

We also know that teachers are a source of information for many families right now, too, and parents may ask you what they should say when talking to their children about COVID-19 and related situations. We wanted to provide this information as a resource you could use in those situations as well.

We’ve written this article to parents as our audience because we know that information for the parents in your life is likely to be your biggest need right now.

If you aren’t a parent, and your only interaction with children is as a teacher, this information can still be useful for you. Be aware that some parents may not want you to talk to their children about the virus or other things without them; however, if a child asks questions or brings it up, it may be important that you discuss it. 

If at all possible, check with parents before it comes up to find out what they are sharing and what they are trying to keep from discussing with their individual children. That way, you can keep your conversations within reasonable limitations that may satisfy any questions your students may have while also letting families handle the situation in ways that are most beneficial to them. 

Tell the Truth

It’s tempting to withhold things from children or even outright lie to them, but that not only damages your credibility with them, it can also harm them in the long run psychologically. 

Children of all ages can sense when something is amiss. Lying to them makes them learn that their “sensors” are flawed, and they will make unconscious adjustments for the future to adapt to what they will then consider their “flawed” senses. You definitely don’t want to give them that impression. 

On the other hand, confirming that they are correct, assuring them that you are aware of what’s happening, and talking to them about their fear and worry can help them learn that both fear and worry are okay. They’ll learn to recognize those emotions as tools that can help them stay safe instead of feelings to avoid. 

That being said, you don’t want to tell them every detail, but not necessarily because you’ll scare them or worry them more. 

Most children want information, and if they get uncomfortable or overwhelmed by the information, they will let you know. Sometimes they will verbally express that they are done talking with you, but usually, young children will distract you, change the subject, or just get up and leave. Occasionally, they will act out with crying or violent behaviors.

You will definitely know if your child is the kind that reacts loudly or violently. You can’t miss it. If you know your child is easily affected, say less. Wait for them to ask questions if you think that works better for them. Or, better yet, just be prepared for them to cry, scream, or get violent. Go into the conversation with earplugs, tissues, and pillows. 

Sometimes the best way to learn how to deal with life is to just jump headlong into it.  

You know your child, though. You may not be a child expert, but you are the expert on YOUR child.

Whether your child needs extra preparation on not, keep in mind that children have short attention spans. Five minutes of talking about one subject for a five-year-old may be plenty (and in some cases, even five minutes is too long). Other children may have a longer attention span, have questions, and want to extend a conversation.

However, don’t expect even a seven or eight-year-old to want to talk about COVID-19, divorce, or death for 15 minutes or more. They just don’t normally stay on topic that long.

The answer is this: be prepared to talk for as long as they have questions or want to talk, but accept a 30-second conversation if that’s all they need. Sometimes kids just want you to say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on. We’re handling it. You good?” Just an acknowledgment can open the door to future questions or conversations they may need to have. 

Tell them the truth, but tell them the truth in words that are appropriate for their age. 

For a four-year-old who asks, “Why do we have to stay home?” The answer may be as simple as, “Sometimes, our bodies get sick, like with a cold. Most sicknesses are the kind we know all about, but every once in a while a new one comes along, and we don’t know enough about it to be sure everyone can stay safe while doing all the things we used to do. One way to keep everyone safe is to have everyone just stay home. When we know more about it, and things are all safe again, we will start doing the things we used to.”

For an eight-year-old who has the same questions, you can explain in a bit more detail. “There’s a virus, more serious than a cold, the flu, or pneumonia. It’s very contagious, which means it’s really easy to get it and give to other people. To keep it from spreading too quickly for hospitals and doctors to handle, we can all help by staying home, so that’s what we’re doing.”

Less is more when you’re having tough conversations. Don’t withhold information, because unfortunately, protecting children right now is not always a luxury you can have. If you or someone else in your family gets sick, you will all have to pull together to help out. If you or your spouse gets sick, your child is likely to be terrified if you’ve never explained what’s happening or the possibility that someone you know may get sick. 

But it’s okay to have lots of small conversations instead of one big “talk”. Actually, it’s preferable. Kids will often take bite-sized bits of information and think through it for a while. They’ll think of questions and bring it up again - probably when you least expect them to. Once you’ve talked about it, be ready to continue the conversation later on. 

Discuss things in their presence. Confront the questions, deal with the sadness and fear together, and include them rather than isolate them, however, pay attention to their reactions and don’t overwhelm them.  

Always let them know you plan to take care of them, and that you are doing all you can to keep them safe and healthy. 

Don’t Make Promises

Just as lying can erode the trust your child has in you, so can empty promises.

We may have every good intention, promising children they won’t get sick, that we won’t get sick, or that school will begin again and everything will go back to “normal”. Unfortunately, if we’ve learned anything from the effects of this illness in other places, it’s that the safest prediction is no prediction at all.

Don’t promise children anything that you cannot deliver. You can say that you’re doing your best. You can tell them you hope they will be well. You can talk about your dreams and desires. But do not promise them anything you can’t personally, immediately control. 

Keep in mind, too, that right now there are a lot of things that remain uncertain. You can tell children what you think will happen, but always leave room for other possibilities. Be very clear that there are other possibilities - and that there are possibilities no one has even thought of yet.

Give Them Tools

We can’t lie to children or make them promises, but we can give them survival tools.

Planning is one of the best tools for anxiety and fear. If you have a plan, you can focus on that rather than the possibility of something happening that is beyond your control. While you can’t plan for everything, there are so many things you can plan for. This is a great time to talk about those things. 

Don’t just let your children in on your plans, ask them to help you make plans. Involve them. Ask them to help you make schedules, keep the house clean, make dinner, and choose board games to play.

Truly combat the cabin fever and frustrations together by talking about how kids can help and giving them lots of opportunities to do so.

And don’t limit their help to non-illness-related things. Talk to your children about what to do if anyone in your house gets sick. Decorate a bucket or container and fill it with “getting better things”. Fill it with things your child can do independently if either you get sick and need to keep them entertained, or if they get sick and have to hang out in their room more time than usual. 

While you’re at it, make a container for each person in the family. That way, feeling ill won’t be scary, you’ll actually have something small to look forward to while family members convalesce.

We can’t shelter children from this. It’s really too big.

But we can equip them to handle it. 

We can show them how to look for resources when they don’t have any. We can demonstrate what it’s like to be fearful, or grieve the loss of our “normal”, or even be angry because we’re overwhelmed and frustrated. We can model what it’s like to be an emotionally healthy person who rolls with difficulties and grows stronger. 

And as we teach things that can help them through this time, we are giving them skills that can last a lifetime. 

That’s not so scary. That’s actually great.

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