1) Kids are (overall) Safe
Children need to know that, thankfully, COVID19 tends to be mild in children. Let them know that, for children, this virus is much like a cold or flu. Remind them of a mild illness they had in the past, and talk about how it was uncomfortable for a while but got better. In addition, let them know that for most people the virus is much like other viruses, and is uncomfortable and then passes. If they have questions or have heard about more severe cases, you may choose to let them know that there are certain at-risk populations. Let them know there are doctors and hospitals to help the people who are most at-risk.
2) Teach them WHY we are working together to make a difference
The reason for social distancing, hand-washing, postponing vacations, and school closings is actually pretty altruistic - meaning the majority of the population is doing these things to support and protect the members of our community who are most at-risk, and to help hospitals and medical personnel to be able to do their job. Despite the gravity of the situation, this part is pretty awesome. We have the opportunity to teach our children that when things get tough, we can work together to so something to make it better. Parents have the chance to use what is happening to teach children about kindness, compassion, and social responsibility.
3) Give them a sense of control by telling them how they can help
Having a way to experience control in a scary situation can help children (and adults, too) to cope. Children can help by washing hands, learning to keep their hands away from their faces, helping to clean the house, taking food to neighbors, doing school from home when their school is closed, supporting small businesses, and sometimes even cancelling play-dates, outings, or family vacations. All of these things are ways to help children experience control and purpose.
4) Explain changes in children's lives by emphasizing compassion
"Why are schools closed?" "Why cant we go on vacation?" "Why do I have to wash my hands AGAIN?" Many of these changes can be explained by telling kids how each change is something we are doing to help the community. We are washing our hands so that we don't spread germs that could make some people sick. We are cancelling our vacation because we can help to slow down people getting sick so that hospitals can take better care of the people who are already sick. We are doing school from home because it is one way we can change our life (in a big way) to help do what is best for our community. We are going to keep going out to eat to support local businesses. What you do to help will depend on your values, perspectives, and your family's specific situation (and, of course, on the current CDC and local community advice!). Although we will all help in different ways, we can use what we are doing to help children build compassion.
5) Point out ways people are helping each other
Let your children know about the good ways people are handling the situation. Tell them about how schools are gathering food and making sure that kids who need it are getting breakfast and lunch while school is out. Let them know how scientists around the world are working together to create vaccines. Talk about how various organizations like museums, opera houses, and educational companies are putting tons of free materials online to help parents homeschool. Tell them about community efforts to support small businesses. It might do us all some good to notice the good in the world and in each other.
6) Let them know this will not last forever
Although we do not fully know what the long-term effects of all this will be, we do know it will not last forever. We can explain to children that viruses are a normal part of life. We can talk about how, once we catch a virus, our body builds up immunities and we (generally) can't catch it again. This means that eventually, people will start building up immunities to this virus, too, and we will not need to do so many things to help prevent the spread. Schools will eventually re-open. Sports will resume. These things are temporary. It is OK to be honest that we don't know how long it will take, but also be reassuring in our confidence that it won't last forever.
7) Be aware of your feelings, and get support if you need it
Children pick up on our feelings, whether we tell them how we are feeling or not. Adults need to be careful that we are managing our own anxiety, fears, and concerns so that they do not make our children more fearful. Fear and anxiety are helpful - to a point. When our anxiety and fear help us to avoid risk, to take appropriate precautions, or to appreciate the seriousness of a situation, this is good. However, if we become overwhelmed by fear, this creates panic. If you feel anxious, wait until you are calm to talk to your children.
8) Battle misinformation, racism, and xenophobia
There is a lot of misinformation going around, and a lot of fear. When fear gets out of control, it can fuel hatred, racism, and xenophobia. When we get into the "every person for themselves" mentality, this generally does not lead to positive outcomes. We can prevent this by teaching our children that we can solve problems better when we respect others, have compassion, and work together. No one is at fault for a virus. It happens. It can happen anywhere to anyone, and has nothing to do with culture, race or political affiliation.
9) Answer questions calmly and with accurate (but child friendly) information
Children will have questions. Lots of them. Be ready to answer those questions the best you can, but also remember that it is OK to not have an answer right away. If your child asks about something, and you are not sure how to answer it, it is perfectly fine to say "That's a great question, let me think about the best way to answer that, and you and I will talk more about it a little later, OK?". Children generally need simple, concrete answers.
10) Validate your child's feelings and listen to them
Although we certainly don't want to panic our children, or give them inappropriate (or too much) information, we also need to allow them to experience a full range of feelings. If they are afraid, let them know that it is OK to be afraid and that it is understandable. Let them know that new and unknown things usually cause fear until we become more understanding of the problem and the solutions. Listen to their concerns. Provide comfort and reassurance.
11) Avoid watching news or listening to radio news in front of young children
News is geared toward adults, not children. It can be dramatized and inappropriate for children. Children do not understand what they hear. Make sure any news presented to your child is done in a child friendly way - with honesty but also respect for your child's developmental level and how they process information.
Being a parent is always a challenge - and in difficult times, it is even more so. Hang in there, we can do this together!
Other Resources on How to Talk to Children: