How to Talk with Kids About COVID-19

Original article updated on March 20, 2020 to accurately represent the evolving situation.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread, experts at Stanford Children’s Health have advice about how families can talk with their children about the outbreak.

“Be honest and say that there is a cold virus that is showing up in different countries,” says Yvonne Maldonado, MD, division chief of pediatric infectious disease at Stanford Children’s Health. “It makes some people very sick, but most people – especially children – seem not to get very sick with it.

Parents and caregivers should communicate in an age-appropriate way that addresses children’s questions without stoking anxiety, says Stanford Children’s Health psychiatrist Victor Carrion, MD, who also directs the Stanford Early Life Stress and Resilience Program. He has tips for how to share information about the spread of the virus with children and teens:

  • It’s important for children to understand that worry is a normal response to news about the disease. But children should not be put in the position of helping parents handle their own worries. It is the parent’s or caregiver’s job to help children feel safe.

  • Parents can reassure their kids that COVID-19 appears to be mild in children. They can remind children and teens of important preventive steps, such as proper handwashing, and can discuss how community and national experts are helping us understand the virus and how to limit its spread.

  • Kids need information tailored to their age and comprehension level. A preschooler can handle less detail than a teenager, for instance, and children of different ages process their reactions to challenging news differently.

Playing games or drawing pictures about the news is the best approach for the very young, while engaging in conversation is appropriate for older kids.

  • There are multiple benefits to teaching children basic infection-control measures, including coughing into their elbow or singing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing their hands to ensure thorough handwashing. In addition to reducing their risk of illness, these actions provide kids with a sense of control over something they may not completely understand. Similarly, parents can emphasize that social distancing is a positive action that helps protect vulnerable community members.

  • It’s appropriate to limit children’s exposure to news reports, while recognizing that older kids may come across these on their own and want to discuss them. Parents can also ask what their children have heard about the coronavirus from other sources. For older kids on social media, parents can discuss how to spot reliable versus unreliable news sources, and can point to reliable information sources.

  • Parents should be alert for behavior changes that signal distress, such as increased clingy behavior in a preschooler, unexplained complaints of headaches or stomachaches in a youngster, or sudden withdrawal in a teenager. These behaviors are often a clue that a child needs help.

For more information for families on coping with COVID-19, see the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s fact sheet.

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