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Helping young children understand social distancing

We will share and add valuable Novel Coronavirus/Covid-19 answers to parenting questions on this page, as well as through the Parents Plus newsletter.

  • Helping young children understand social distancing
  • Talking to children about Novel Coronavirus/Covid19

Helping young children understand social distancing

QUESTION: During this coronavirus crisis, I am struggling with getting my children to understand the need for social distancing.  We are all stuck at home together and they can’t understand why they can’t go out more, etc. My four-year-old girl says she misses visiting her Nana (who has COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – and is in self-isolation) and my six-year-old really misses football with his friends – this was his life.  I want to explain why all the changes are necessary without scaring them.  My six-year-old can be a bit of a worrier and I don’t want to add to this.

ANSWER:  The Novel Coronavirus,Covid-19 crisis has come upon us really quickly. With schools off and families in self-isolation, our lives have utterly changed and become much more restrictive.  It is understandable that children are confused and unsure about what is happening.  All they initially might see is losses and new rules that are restricting them.

Getting young children on board
One of the positives in the Covid-19 crisis is how society has galvanised in a collective effort to defeat the virus.  Once people understand how important social distancing is to stop the spread and to protect the vulnerable, they collectively agree to serious restrictions on their personal freedoms.

Unimaginable even ten days ago, society has acquiesced to the closing of pubs and restaurants (indeed there was grassroots pressure for this to happen).  The key was everyone trusted the messaging and leadership – they knew what had to do done.

Young children are no different than adults in this regard.  Once they understand why something needs to done and once you explain the positive reason to help others, you will be surprised at how motivated they might become

Use child-centred language
In talking to young children it is important to take time to explain the message using concrete child-centred language that they understand.

For example, to explain why your four-year-old can’t visit Nana you might say: “There is a virus, called Covid19, that makes old people very sick.  Children can carry Covid19 but not know they have it.  So we can’t visit Nana in case we give her the virus. The good news is that we can talk to her and see her on the phone. She misses you very much and loves when you show her pictures or when you read your books together over the phone at bedtime”.

The key is to show children how they are helping others by their actions. You are showing how your daughter can protect Nana and also be kind to her by keeping in touch.

You can also use pictures or drawings to your children to explain how the virus spreads and importance of washing hands and social distancing.  There are also many children’s picture books just published online to explain all about the virus that you might be able to read together

Use a positive tone
Parents are often worried that difficult facts might scare children.  In reality, it is how things are explained rather than the facts that scare children the most.

Think of the different messages you have received about Covid and how these have made you feel.  In Ireland we have been fortunate to have clear, calm and concise messaging from our experts and leaders in recent days (contrast that with some of the international media outlets and leaders).

Once again children are no different than adults. Vague, inconsistent and confusing answers from anxious parents make for anxious children.  When you are talking to your children, think through what you want to say so you can be calm and clear about what they have to do.

The conversations don’t always have to be serious and a bit of humour and fun can help.  You can have fun learning how to wash hands by having a competition to see who does it the best or you can make a game practicing foot taps as a way of greeting and you can even make a drawing or write a story with your children on the heroic campaign to defeat the evil Covid-19!

Focus on alternatives
While there are many new restrictions and rules in your children’s lives, there are also new opportunities and alternatives.  As already discussed you can use video calls to help your children stay in touch with Nana.  You can also help your son learn to play socially distant football with one or two friends in the park.  You can set up the game whereby each player has to stay two metres apart and pass the ball after two touches – I am sure you and your son can think of lots of creative variations.

There may also be new opportunities within the new rules that you have not had the time and space to take up before.  Perhaps there is now time to complete that jigsaw, take out those board games or even help your children learn to cook, when there was never this time before.
Dr. John Sharry is CEO Parents Plus Charity
Published in The Irish Times newspaper, 20th March 2020. Read original here.

Talking to children about Coronavirus

QUESTION:  I am wondering how best to talk to my children about coronavirus. Clearly, there is lots of anxiety around.  My 14-year-old daughter, who has a tendency to be dramatic, has been bringing home some mad information (from conversations in school and on the internet).  She is upset by how quickly it is spreading – giving the impression that we will all have it by the end of the week.

We have tried to play it down a lot at home, saying we think it will all be fine.  I tried to reassure my nine-year-old son (who, unfortunately, is a bit of worrier) that not a single person under 10 has died of the virus in the world, and straight away he talked about turning 10 soon.  What is the best way to approach this conversation?

ANSWER:  While you might think you can protect children from the worries of the adult world, this is not practically possible, especially as children become older.  The spread of coronavirus now dominates the news and media outlets, and it is filtering into the world of children.  Just as parents are understandably alarmed and worried about what is happening, so are their children.  Young children are now talking in the playground about the virus, and teenagers are sharing worries on social media.

Rather than avoiding the difficult conversation with your children, it is better to be proactive and to plan how and what you might tell them.  It is always better that your children are talking to their parents and getting information from trusted adults rather than relying on unreliable sources such as their peers or social media.

Adapt your information to your child’s age
By simply turning off the TV news when they are around, you can largely protect preschool children from bad news stories from the outside world. Unless they are directly affected by coronavirus (such as witnessing a sick parent) they may not need explanations about what is happening and their innocence can be preserved.

Once children start primary school, the news starts to infiltrate their world and their peer groups start talking and discussing what is happening.  Once this starts, it is important you become proactive as a parent and raise issues as they confront them – at this stage the key is to use child-centred concrete language that they easily understand.

Once your children start secondary school your explanations need to be more adult and scientific.  Teenagers appreciate being taken seriously and being treated like adults on the same level as their parents.

Listen carefully
Make sure to first listen carefully when your children raise worries and questions. When your daughter talks of exaggerated facts, respond calmly and ask her: “Where did you hear that from?”  When your son worries about death rates, give him space to express his thoughts and feelings.  For both children, you want to encourage them to talk to you and to keep communication open.  You want to give them the message that you can handle their feelings and worries.

Correct misinformation
Acknowledge that there is a lot of scary information going around, but not all of it is true.  Direct your daughter towards reliable facts and information on the Internet.  For example, there is an evidence-based summary on the Irish Times site that looks at all the facts and the protective actions you can take.  I would suggest you read some of the information with your daughter (and possibly with your son, according to his level of understanding).  This might be a good way to calmly go through the facts and to help you both think how best to respond.

When your son challenges your reassurance, listen to his underlying worries. Although you can tell him that so far no young children have died, this may make him worried that older people (such as his parents) may be at risk. Acknowledging these worries and putting them in context of reliable information is the best approach.

Explore positive actions
Empower your children and yourself by focusing on reasonable actions that you can take to keep them safe.  This can include agreeing good hand-washing routines and new ways of greeting people outside the home (such as waving instead of hand shaking).  If you have to stay at home for a period, involve them in preparing a list of foods you will need and what fun activities you can do at home.  Remember, taking safety actions does not have to be a morbidly serious affair.  You can make a game of learning how to wash hands properly, seeing who can follow video instructions the best.  Also, there are lots of funny videos online that describe new ways of greeting such as a foot tapping or elbow bumping.

Think through how you can respond
Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis is likely to escalate in the coming weeks and months, so it is important to adapt and think through how you can help your children cope.  The key is to keep yourself informed and to strike a balance between taking appropriate safety action and continuing to live family life as normal.
Dr. John Sharry is CEO Parents Plus Charity
Published in The Irish Times newspaper, 3rd March 2020. Read original here.

If you have trained in any of the Parents Plus mental health or parenting programmes, and would like advice on how best to support families during this time, please contact