How to answer big questions kids have about the coronavirus pandemic

From missing grandma to fears about getting sick, here’s how adults can help kids navigate this difficult time. 

For millions of adults across the US and the world, life has changed dramatically. We have all been forced to shelter in place and isolate ourselves from our lives as we knew it. Most of us can’t physically go to our places of employment, and we are wearing masks whenever we do leave our homes for essential items. 

Something as simple as having dinner with a friend or going to the gym feel like distant memories. 

But for children, life has changed perhaps even more drastically. Millions are home from school, daycare or camps with no clear idea of when they’ll be able to go back. Many still can’t go to playgrounds, see friends, or visit grandparents. And unlike adults, who at least can read and understand the (often terrifying) news, many younger children may struggle to grasp what’s going on. However, there are steps parents can take to help kids navigate this crisis, too. 

With older kids, it can be okay to acknowledge that it’s normal to feel some anxiety right now, and that you’re feeling it, too. With younger ones, however, it might be better to project as much calm as possible. And whatever their age, a lot of kids have questions right now, whether it’s about why they need to wash their hands so much, when they’ll be able to see friends and grandparents again, or what happens if someone they love gets sick. 

Below are some suggestions about how parents can respond to kids’ questions in ways that help them feel supported and teach them to be part of a larger community — even during a time of social distancing.

Will I get sick? Will my parents get sick? What happens if we do? 

These are probably the scariest questions on a lot of kids’ minds right now. But it’s important not to minimize kids’ fears or tell them there’s no possibility they or their family will get sick, because there is a possibility that they may. What you CAN say is that you are doing everything you know of to make sure everyone in the family stays as healthy as possible and that, “if we get sick, then we’re going to do everything we know how to do to make sure we get better again.” You can also point to people in the community who are helping keep others safe and healthy (an old Mister Rogers technique). For example, parents can tell kids, “our doctors and our nurses are working really, really hard to make sure that everybody, if they do get sick, can get better again.” 

You can also emphasize the things your family is doing to stay as healthy as possible, like washing hands or avoiding social gatherings. 

Why DO I have to wash my hands so much? 

One of the most important things people can do to protect themselves and others during this pandemic is washing hands frequently. But this can be hard to explain to little kids who might rather be playing or getting right to snack time. For kids who are old enough to understand, it’s okay to tell children that we wash our hands because sometimes germs get on our hands, and if germs get on our hands and we don’t get rid of them, they can make us sick. You can also say that it’s even more important than usual to wash our hands because it will help the spread of the coronavirus, so washing our hands is one of the best ways we know to help keep ourselves safe. 

Toddlers and preschoolers, however, may be too young to understand much about the coronavirus or how germs work. For them, you can simply frame hand-washing as part of a family routine. You can say things like, “in our family, we always wash our hands because it helps us be healthy.” 

You can also make hand-washing fun by having kids sing “Happy Birthday” twice or the ABC song, both of which take about 20 seconds, the time experts recommend you spend washing. 

When can I go back to school? 

While some kids might have been initially excited to get out of going to school, taking away school attendance means taking away something that’s a constant in their lives, and that can be distressing.

For school-aged kids asking when they can return to class, assure your kids that you are always staying up to date on when they may be able to start school again. But you can also explain that you as a parent as well as your child’s school want to make sure that when kids do go back, “everybody can stay healthy.” In the meantime, you can help your child access and navigate whatever remote learning your district has set up, you can get resources from homeschooling networks, or even just help your child stay in touch with classmates on FaceTime or Zoom calls. 

Why can’t I visit my friends or my grandparents? 

Kids of all ages are understandably sad that they can’t see a lot of friends or family members in person right now. To help kids cope with that, it’s certainly important to show how they can keep in contact with grandparents and others through FaceTime or you can even encourage your kids to make cards or write letters if they don’t have access or don’t use mobile devices. If grandparents or other older relatives live nearby, kids may be able to “visit” them by dropping off groceries or other necessities and waving hello through a window. 

Meanwhile, you can also tell kids that “the safer that we are, the more careful we are, the sooner we’re going to get to go see all of your favorite people”. 

If my parents are home, why do they have to work instead of playing with me? 

Many workers in this country don’t have the option to work from home right now, and a staggering number have been laid off or had their hours cut. But for those who are able to work remotely, many are being asked to do so. And if you have young kids, that often means trying to get something done while your child asks increasingly plaintively why you’re on the phone or computer instead of playing blocks. 

In that situation let your child know when you might be available to take a break and play with them, perhaps even setting a timer so they can see how long they have until they can get your full attention. 

I’m not sick, so why do I have to take precautions? 

This one may apply especially to teenagers and older kids, who may feel a certain adolescent invincibility even in the face of a virus that has many people scared. That could be compounded by reports that the illness is less severe in children and young people. 

For teenagers who don’t understand why they have to take precautions you can explain that even if a kid doesn’t get sick, they can pass the virus along to other people — including loved ones —who could become very ill. When it comes to social distancing, hand-washing, and other safety measures during this time, you could say, “we all have to think about who are we doing this for” — and that can include grandparents, people in the community with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, health care workers saving lives, and everyone in the country and the world who benefits from efforts to “flatten the curve.” 

Meanwhile, even if they act invincible, teens may be having a lot of conflicting feelings right now. Adolescents can tend to vacillate a lot between feeling very powerful and feeling very powerless. There are a lot of teens who are going to complain about being home with their parents, and that’s real, but they’re probably also scared. Parents can help them talk through their fears and recognize that being home is an important anchor for them sometimes, while also supporting ways that teenagers can still connect with each other, whether it’s playing online games or mobilizing around a social cause. 

How can I help? 

For kids who are old enough to understand, this is a time to talk about collective responsibility for our families and all of society. This is an opportunity for a family to develop a civic identity, and parents can teach kids that part of that identity can be taking care of people who are vulnerable. 

Helping can take a lot of forms, whether it’s delivering groceries to a grandparent, or donating to support service workers who may be out of work at this time (if a family has the financial means to do so. Also, it is an opportunity to teach kids that this is a time for compassion, and the understanding that each one of us is responsible for all of us.

Written by Crystal S. Pavloski

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This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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