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Talking to Preschool-Age Children About COVID-19

COVID graphic

by Lorri Bauer, MS, and Natalie Elms, MA

The novel coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented and unsettling event for people of all ages, and for small children, its ever-changing nature and intense media coverage can be hard to comprehend — and even scary. Below are a few guidelines to help keep preschool-age kids calm, informed and feeling safe through this uncharted territory.

  • Give age-appropriate facts and information. You can start by answering questions that your child may have about the virus or about what is happening (e.g., why school is cancelled, or why we cannot go to the park, library or zoo). You may need to talk about concepts like germs and how they get into our bodies. There are many good resources online in the form of short social stories or episodes from trusted children’s television series. KPBS Kids’ website has a list of episodes, including “Daniel Tiger,” “Sesame Street,” “Curious George” and “Super Why” that discuss germs, as well as proper handwashing techniques for preschoolers. Recently, Alexa’s Playful Learning Academy for Young Children (PLAYC) staff taught preschoolers about germs by adding glitter — representing germs — to lotion and demonstrating how germs can be passed when they high-fived one another or opened a door knob. They then made the glitter germs go away by practicing handwashing skills.
  • Expect that children may repeatedly ask the same question, and to a number of adults. It may be beneficial to share how you’re talking to your child about the virus with the other trusted adults in your child’s life. It helps children feel safe when they hear the same answer each time.
  • Be available to your child and keep communication open. Offer extra encouragement and physical “check-ins” that your child may need (e.g., hugs, sitting close while playing or watching a movie).
  • Emphasize that home is a safe place and your family has the resources you need at home, and that you will all be together. Talk with your child about all the things you have that will help your family to be safe and stay healthy (e.g., good food, clean water, warm blankets, comfortable clothes, and toys and games to play with).
  • Be mindful that children pick up on our feelings, stress levels and anxiety. Adults need to practice self-care, limit watching news programming while children are with them in the room or nearby, and have adult conversations when children are not present.
  • Discuss with your child that adults will be there to help. If your child gets sick, their loved ones will care for them. Doctors and nurses will also help if they are needed. You can encourage your child to remember another time when they were sick and talk about what people did to help them feel better (e.g., got them juice or soup, sang them a song or let them rest on the sofa). You can also engage in pretend play with your child about taking care of someone who is sick.  Let your child choose to be the patient or the helper, such as a parent, doctor or nurse.
  • Talk about things your child and family members can do to stay healthy. Focus on washing hands, catching coughs and sneezes in their elbow or a tissue (and throwing the tissue directly into the trash!), getting enough rest, eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of water, and staying physically active. Model and teach these behaviors, and keep it light-hearted. For example, you can sing a song with your child while washing hands, have children help prepare healthy meals and snacks, and create obstacle courses and other active games to play together.
  • Maintain basic daily and weekly routines and schedules as much as possible. Bedtime and wake-up time, meal and snack times, and several opportunities for active play every day are very important. Familiarity and predictability are calming to children and will help them adjust to the changes that we cannot control right now.  Things may need to be done differently for a while, but we can still count on certain basic things to stay the same. Make the “new normal” fun by keeping regular visits with grandparents and friends via video chatting, building a pretend zoo or having a picnic in your living room or backyard.

For additional information on talking to children about COVID-19, including children in different age groups, refer to tips from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.