How to guide family conversations about COVID-19

Find out what the child already knows

Find out what the child already knows

Ask what they’ve heard about it and what they understand

Most children will have already heard about the virus or seen people wearing face masks. In such cases, not talking about something can actually increase a child’s worry. You might say “What have you heard about it? Have you been speaking about it with your friends?”. Asking about it also gives you a chance to learn how much your child knows and to find out if they're hearing the wrong information. However, if your child shows no interest in the conversation, do not insist.

Reassure your child

Reassure your child

Stay calm: When you talk about COVID-19 and the news, use a tone that is comforting and calm. If you are feeling too upset to do so, take a few minutes for yourself and speak after you have collected your thoughts and you feel more ready.

Tell the truth: If true, explain to your child that they and your family are fine, and remind them that their teachers are also at home to keep them safe and healthy. Focus on helping your child feel safe, yet provide information that is honest and accurate. For example, if someone in the family is sick, you can let your child know that there are doctors and health professionals who can help their loved one heal.

Talk about safety: Discuss the things that are happening to keep people safe and healthy. Stress the safety steps that you are taking. For example, you can let them know that the safety steps are there to make sure the least amount of people get sick.

Young kids might be reassured to know that hospitals and doctors are prepared to treat people who get sick. Older kids might be comforted to know that scientists are working to develop a vaccine.

Show that you care: Tell your child you love them and give them plenty of affection (for example, give them a hug, show interest in their games, share moments of connection by reading together).

Touch base: Check in with your child every so often to see how they are doing and if they have any questions. Once again, do not insist if your child does not wish to talk about something in particular.  

Repeat as needed: Remember that some kids will ask the same question over and over. It’s okay to repeat the same information to reassure them.

Make space for your child to express their feelings

Make space for your child to express their feelings

Don’t be afraid to discuss the virus

It is important that your child knows they have someone who will listen to them and make time for them to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the virus. Tell your child that you will continue to keep them updated as you learn more important information. 

Give your child space to share their fears

  • Validate what they are feeling. For example, “it's normal to feel nervous/angry/scared/confused/ sad about what is going on”, “Are you feeling confused? Sad?”, “Are you feeling calm?”.
  • When your child shares their feelings, show them you understand and accept their feelings, and comfort them. For example, you might say “I know you’re scared. We’re going to keep safe”, “We continue to do what it takes to keep safe, can you think of an example of something we do?” 
  • Let them know they can always come to you to talk about what scares them or for answers to their questions. 
  • You can use talking about COVID-19 as a springboard for discussions. This may be a way to help kids learn about their bodies, like how the immune system fights off disease or what their friends think of the situation, etc. 
Provide information

Provide information

Make sure the information you share is accurate and meets your child’s needs

  • Keep information simple and straightforward.
  • Follow your child's lead. Some kids may want to spend time talking. But if they don't seem interested or don't ask a lot of questions, that's OKAY too.
  • Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming.
  • When discussing facts, avoid language that might blame others or lead to stigma (for example, avoid communicating in some way that some people might be more contagious/dangerous than others)

Give information and ask questions geared to your child's age

  • Children under 5 years old need reassurance that despite the changes, they will be taken care of. They may ask questions about why they are home instead of daycare or preschool, why their parents aren’t working etc. They may think they did something wrong or make false links, so checking in on what they understand can be helpful to clarify misunderstandings. You might say “This virus is like a cold but everyone is staying home so we can stay healthy”
  • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should balance COVID-19 facts with reassurance that their homes are safe and that adults are there to help keep them healthy and to take care of them if they do get sick. Give simple examples of the steps people take every day to stop germs and stay healthy, such as washing hands. Say things like “Adults are working hard to keep you safe. We’re all staying inside so that fewer people get the virus. ” 
  • Older elementary school children may be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what will happen if COVID-19 comes to their school or community. You can ask them what they know about it and then have a discussion. For example, you might say “What have you heard about the virus so far? What do you think about it? What have you been talking about with your friends?”. They may need help to separate reality from rumor and misinformation. If they say something that shows that they have a good understanding, reinforce it. Discuss efforts made by community leaders to prevent germs from spreading. Clarify thoughts that they may have if inaccurate.
  • High school students can discuss the issue in a more in-depth (adult-like) fashion and can be referred directly to suitable sources of COVID-19 facts. Take the time to hear out what they know, and when appropriate, give honest, fact-based information about the current status of COVID-19. Having such knowledge can help them feel a sense of control. They might want to see their friends and will need extra patience as you validate their wishes while explaining the importance of social distancing. If they show a mature understanding of the situation, validate them by saying something like “I’m impressed by how much you know and that you are taking this seriously. At this age some kids think this does not affect them. Doing our part is a way we can all help others”. 

It's okay to not have all the answers

  • If your child asks about something and you don't know the answer, say so. Kids may have good questions that even doctors don’t know the answers to—for example they may have trouble understanding how long this will last. You can say “We don’t know the answer to this yet, but doctors and scientists are working to find out”.
  • When your child has a question that you don’t know the answer to, use it as a chance to find out together. Check the following website for up-to-date, reliable information about COVID-19 :
Montreal Children's Hospital