Children may expect others to periodically get a cold or even the flu. What happens to children, however, if they learn that a loved one has COVID-19?
Knowledge About the Virus
Many families have made significant adjustments to their daily routines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending upon the age of your child, you may have explained that all of these changes, including social distancing, are how we can avoid getting a serious virus called COVID-19. Your child may even know, from you or from watching the news, that this virus can be deadly.
Knowing that COVID-19 is serious can help children understand the reasons for changes in their daily activities, but it can also lead to them having more concerns about a loved one diagnosed with it. They may fear that they will catch it too!
Talking With Your Children
Even the youngest children will need some information about what is happening if a parent or someone else in the household is ill, since that person will be isolated from the family. It’s generally best to talk with each child individually since age and personality may impact what you share and what questions might be asked. When talking with a child or teenager, try these tips if a caregiver is the one ill:
- think about whether or not your child would benefit from knowing that the person has COVID-19;
- when possible, wait to talk with your child until you have had a chance to think through how you want to explain the situation;
- let your child know that he or she has a support team (name them). If one person isn’t available, there are others who will step in as caregivers (this helps in case you, unfortunately, also get sick);
- explain what you are doing to reduce the chances of others getting sick. If your child is worried about becoming ill, you can share that kids don’t usually have serious symptoms even if they do get it;
- if you say that the loved one has COVID-19, add that lots of people are sick for a few weeks so your child doesn’t expect the person to be better in a day or two;
- for many young children, it’s okay to explain symptoms in general. For example, “Mom has a fever and a cough.” Other children may need more details or just need to know that the parent isn’t well;
- if the person is at home, explain how and why routines need to be changed for a while. “Grandpa has to stay in a private room to get better and to avoid giving us the virus.”;
- avoid giving overly optimistic, or pessimistic, descriptions of what’s happening;
- if a child asks detailed questions, and you don’t feel that you either know the answer or know how to explain it, it’s okay to say that you need to think about the question and will continue the discussion soon.
Before and after your talk, monitor your child to see if your child’s behaviors or emotions are communicating stress, even if words are not.
Answering Your Child’s Questions
Questions from children and teens can vary from “Who is going to make breakfast?” to “Is he going to die?” Keep the lines of communication open so you know how your children are feeling, what they are thinking, and when you might need to correct misunderstandings. Once you explain that a loved one is ill, it’s time to listen to your child.
If your child:
- asks if the loved one is going to die, you can explain that most people recover, even those who need to be hospitalized. You can add that lots of doctors are helping people with COVID-19 and coming up with new treatments. However, if your loved one is in acute danger of dying, you can consider letting your child know that doctors are trying to help and you hope the patient begins to get better, but that the situation is serious.
- acts like it doesn’t matter, monitor your child for changes in sleep, appetite, behavior, complaints, focus, and mood. These changes are sometimes a sign that your child is under stress. Also, be prepared for your child to ask you a question when you least expect it.
- gets mad that he can’t see the person with COVID-19, know that this is natural, especially if the person is a parent. Try to be creative. Try using social media, if possible, to connect your child with that parent, if the patient is able to do so.
There are a few things to consider when trying to help your child to cope with a close relative having COVID-19, especially if it’s a parent. For instance:
- being separated from the ill parent can lead to some children experiencing anxiety, sadness, and anger. Try to keep their schedule as routine as possible. Know that they may need you to be very patient as they try to deal with the relative being physically unavailable. Try new activities too, which can provide a brief distraction from the focus on the missing parent;
- If your child knows about deaths from COVID-19, from watching television for example, this may breed fear of loss. Even if the parent is improving, your child may not believe it;
- if your child knows that people have died from this pandemic, he or she may need even more support because you may be viewed as potentially the only caregiver now. Your child may test if you are prepared to take on the role;
- consider minimizing or eliminating your child’s exposure to the news. Hearing the number of deaths each day from the virus can increase anxiety.
- it’s possible that your child may be optimistic and not worried. Your child may enjoy more intense time with you;
If your child has intense or persistent reactions to the news of a loved one having COVID-19, such as changes in mood, behavior, attention, ability to sustain focus on hobbies or interests, sleep, or appetite, think about getting support from a professional to guide you and/or support your child directly. During this pandemic, there are many therapists who are available through social media platforms to speak with and ‘see’ you and your child without increasing the risk of anyone spreading the virus through office visits.
You may be stressed and tired. You may not feel like you have lots of reserve energy to cope with your child’s anxiety or concerns, especially when they show up as difficult behaviors, emotional outbursts, or questions. Take care of yourself. Try deep breathing, visualize being in a calm place, or seek out support from other adults, but also know that supporting your child during this difficult time can have a big impact!
The APA Psychologist Locator can help you find a therapist near you.
Click here to download Chapter 5: Calming Yourself from Bounce Back, revised to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Related Books from Magination Press
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