How to talk to kids about the coronavirus and other bad news

They might know more than you think, but starting the conversation is tricky.
Family sitting and talking.
It's stressful right now, but it's also the perfect time to open up a dialogue in your family. Pexels

There’s a lot going on outside of the comforts of our homes right now. COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in some states. People are taking to the streets to speak up about violence and injustice against Black Americans. Hurricane season will soon be hitting its peak. And to top it all off, it’s a presidential election year.

If you just felt a wave of stress reading this, you’re not alone. As tough as it is as an adult, the children in your life are looking around at the world and probably getting overwhelmed by the constant march of bad news. They might turn to you for answers—or you might need to step in to help them cope, especially if they struggle to know exactly how to communicate the emotions they are feeling.

If you haven’t been talking to the children around you about the multiple crises at hand, it’s probably a good time to start.

Signs a kid is stressed out

A lot has changed since February of this year, and the behavior of the kids you live with or are close to probably has as well. Each day, the world’s diving even deeper into debates over masks, what activities people can do, and when cities and towns can get “back to normal.” No wonder stress might be mounting in your home.

Children can exhibit anything from withdrawal from the activities they love to physical pain when they’re anxious, says Robin Gurwich, a professor, psychologist, and child-trauma expert at Duke University. In younger kids, anxiety might show up as a stomachache or headache, as well as a tendency to be clingy. In older kids and teens, you might see more dramatic mood swings than the ones you’re used to. Puberty is reason enough to be prickly, but a world that seems uncontrollable can make those already complicated emotions even more intense, Gurwich says. On top of that, stress can cause poor sleeping patterns, which may lead to poor concentration or memory. So look for hints of that as well.

If your child is showing obvious or even subtle side effects, it’s time to open up the dialogue about what could be stressing them out. But before you even begin that conversation, take a deep breath, and look in the mirror to prepare.

The importance of self education

Before jumping into any conversation about the news, know how it’s affecting your own health and mood. Every person is impacted by COVID-19 and the struggle for equal rights in some way, so talking about these things with others will likely bring your own feelings to light. Kids are like sponges, says Cindy Graham, a psychologist who runs her own practice in Baltimore, so be prepared for them to soak up whatever emotions you share. “They pick up on anxiety; they pick up on anger.”

Additionally, kids tend to know a lot more than you think they do, so don’t walk on eggshells and try to protect them by giving them only half of the information and letting them piece together the rest. And above all, don’t make stuff up, Gurwich says. You can explain the death, pain, and damage that they might see on TV or Tiktok in an honest, age-appropriate way, as long as you invest in a little self education.

The better you understand the dynamics of the world around you, the better you can relay that information gently and informatively, Gurwich says. That might mean staying on top of what’s going on in your city or county, paying close attention to the facts when watching or reading the news, and being actively involved in your community. Make sure to present yourself as a resource for the children in your life, even if it feels better to swap out the daily COVID-19 press conference for Hulu.

Of course, Gurwich adds, it’s okay and absolutely necessary to give yourself a break. Go on walks to clear your mind, read a book instead of scrolling through Twitter, and let yourself breathe. You don’t want to be ill-informed, but you also don’t want to be so frayed that you can’t help the people that need you.

The must-hit topics

Talking about the pandemic and police brutality are hot-bed topics, and your child has likely heard different opinions from friends and family members. The number one goal when talking about either is acknowledging that people will have different perspectives. Having a good grasp on the science and information behind them can also make tackling these issues slightly less daunting.

Let’s start with COVID-19. Just because you’re informed and wearing masks and avoiding social scenarios, doesn’t mean your friends and family are. For a kid, it can be really annoying and confusing when you have to stay inside or wear a protective equipment everywhere, but your cousin in Florida is planning a trip to Disney or going to their favorite restaurants like nothing is happening.

Explain to the kids in question what precautions you’re taking and why. Respecting your choices as a family and being responsible for your own actions is key, Gurwich says. You can be a role model, and also remind children that they can be a role model, too, through the personal actions they take. You can’t control other people, but you toss out some serious praise when a kid makes it through the entire grocery store without taking their mask off once.

Now, when it comes to racial justice, it’s essential to recognize just how early children pick up on different skin colors and discrimination, Graham says. Kids are very insightful, and they’ve likely already experienced racism in some form or another.

Prioritize the power of allyship, or in child-friendly wording, standing up for what’s right, in your discussion. Gurwich says that it’s important to stress to kids that silence is only giving more power to bullies, so it’s important that they stick up for someone when they’re being targeted for the color of their skin. This is an actionable step that even small children can take when they hear about social justice issues.

Another topic to mull over is privilege. Race-based privilege is an obvious one, but there’s also the privilege of being healthy, working from home, living in a secure home, and having healthcare.

It’s important to break down what privileges your family has with children, Graham says. Additionally, if your family suffers from a lack of privilege, it’s essential to talk about how to handle the anger that comes along with discrimination.

Either way, be clear that there’s no shame in getting help to have these conversations, Graham adds. “Enlist your village,” or friends, teachers, and doctors, to help guide children if you’re not sure you’re ready to talk to them about such complex issues.

Each conversation should go two ways

Do you remember the first time someone told you that your idea was terrible or otherwise invalidated your emotions? No matter what age you are, it hurts when someone puts you down, especially if that someone is an individual you admire and love.

So when you talk to your kids about these issues, go into it with an open mind, ears, and heart. If you get into shouting matches with teens or dismiss the fears of elementary school-ers, it may amplify their anxieties, Graham says. Those emotional lows can even lead to self-harm actions.

“If kids are shut down or shamed for their emotions, the struggles they’re having, that’s going to continue to make the situation worse,” she says.

While you might not be able to parse or relate to their emotions, you should still be accepting and supportive. The main point to stress in these tough discussions is that you’re on the kid’s side and want to help them through this complicated time.

And even if you’re coming into this conversation as a mentor and teacher, be willing to learn something from a younger person about how to be a more compassionate and fair. Their intuition and wisdom might just surprise you.

If you’re worried that a child is engaging in self harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or Crisis Text Line.