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How do I explain COVID-19 to children?

Text updated on 2020-05-20

Children can strongly sense the emotions of the adults around them. Hiding anxieties or lying can have a negative impact on children. It's important to put these emotions into words and explain what a virus is and how to protect themselves from it. For tweens and teens, the current situation is an opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills in the face of overly sensational news about COVID-19.

The issues to be discussed with children, depending on their age and responsiveness, are : What is a virus? How do you get it? What does it do to the human body, How long does it last? What actions can be taken to protect oneself and others?

It is also important to point out to children that this virus is more dangerous for adults than for children, but that by working all together, we will defeat it!

Do not hesitate to tell them that there are many unknowns about the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and that to date no one can predict the outcome of the epidemic which depends, in particular, on the behaviour of all of us.

The most important thing is to speak to children with sincerity, honesty, and to trust our ability to find the most appropriate words for their age, level of understanding, and level of concern.

Your concerns are perfectly justified in these complicated times and accept them. Verbalize your emotions towards your children in an age-appropriate manner while explaining how you are dealing with them. Express your fears, "Mommy is sometimes afraid or sad, because many people are sick", and find alternative solutions: "playgrounds are closed as a precaution so that we do not transmit the COVID-19 disease to each other. Why don't we take a walk outside and get some fresh air?"

Children strongly sense the emotions and especially the stress sensations of adults. Even if children do not express their anxiety directly/verbally, their distress may be expressed in other ways such as nightmares and behavioural problems such as the appearance of aggressive behaviour.

Listen to your children as they talk about their perception of the crisis and their emotions. Young children can deal with their emotions through role-playing or imaginative play - which is perfectly normal and something you should encourage!

With children, we must be vigilant and monitor or comment on sources of information from the television or the Internet, which can be anxiety-provoking, exaggerated, or even false.

For pre-teens and teens, the crisis we are experiencing can be an opportunity to critically examine sensational news by confronting them with reliable sources of information.

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During societal crises, it is important to reassure children while talking to them honestly, to acknowledge and accept their emotions and yours. This 2002 article explains these points in the context of 9/11 and war.

Myers-Wall, Judith. 2002. Talking to children about terrorism and armed conflict. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues 7(1).

Tips on how to best manage children's stress.

Power, T. G. (2004). Stress and coping in childhood: The parents' role. Parenting: Science and practice, 4(4), 271-317.

Video that proposes a fun activity to helps people understand how to kill the virus with a detergent.

This video also serves as a demonstration of the importance of handwashing.

Advice from the French Society of Cardiology

(in French)

Further reading

How do I prepare for my child's return to school?

Can children be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?

At what age should children wear a mask at school, depending on the country?

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in children?

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in children?

We are planning a family reunion for the holidays: how to do it?

How do we find meaning in the new normal?

What are the psychological effects of COVID-19?