RED WING — Challenging situations like COVID-19 leave parents with the difficult problem of how to talk to children about what is happening in their lives.

“Before you have the conversation with your child, examine how you are regulating your own distress,” said Dr. Emily Sander, psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. “Children take their cues from the adults in their lives, especially the adults they are closest to and trust.”

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If the adult is able to control emotions, Sander noted, children are more likely to feel safe and stay calm. Once they are able to regulate their emotions, parents need to decide how much information and what type of information a child needs.

“Parents know their kids better than anybody, so use your best judgment with each of your children,” said Ellie McCann, extension educator and professor at the Center for Family Development at the University of Minnesota Extension Office. “Take their cues. Think about their temperament and how they respond to discussing different and important topics.”

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Ellie McCann is extension educator and professor at the Center for Family Development at the University of Minnesota Extension Office. Photo courtesy of Ellie McCann
Ellie McCann is extension educator and professor at the Center for Family Development at the University of Minnesota Extension Office. Photo courtesy of Ellie McCann

The exact words parents choose to talk to children are less important than the approach, Sander said, adding she recommends “exploring what your child has already heard about the illness and expanding from there. Using open-ended questions and prompts will help you learn what your child already knows and what he or she may be concerned about.”

Parents might want to protect their children from the sad or frightening information about COVID-19, but it is more important that children receive accurate, factual information, according to Sander. It is also important to “gently correct misinformation” that children may have received from other sources.

Making sure that the information children receive is something they can understand is important.

“I’m not going to talk to my 15-year-old the same way I would my five-year-old,” McCann said. “Just like information they receive in their classes at school, it should be age appropriate.”

Model behavior

McCann said parents can model the behaviors they want to see in their children such as coughing into their elbow and washing their hands. She even suggested turning those activities into something that is done together as a family.

Sander suggested giving kids the opportunity to help pick out which songs to sing to determine how long hand washing should last, or allowing a teen to find YouTube videos that the family can watch to better understand health-related habits.

Even carefully worded conversations can end up causing children to feel uncomfortable or upset.

“As you talk with your child, observe their body language and facial expressions so you can provide comfort as needed,” Sander explained. “Listen to and validate their feelings. Remember, it is not your job to make uncomfortable feelings go away. It is your job to let your child know that what they are feeling is natural and that you are there to support them through it.”

What to about social distancing

While most children can readily learn health habits like regular hand washing, one aspect of COVID-19 prevention is a particular challenge: social distancing.

“This one is hard for many kids, and especially adolescents whose main developmental goal is to cultivate a social group,” Sander said.

She said if parents can listen to their children complain about missing out on their favorite activities or being frustrated by an online learning assignment, or missing seeing their friends every day, then those children will be more able to “hear and accept the reasons why social distancing is important for now.”

There are many websites with valuable information to help parents deal decide how to talk to their children about COVID-19. The CDC website had information, and McCann said the University of Minnesota Extension website has a section specifically about this at https://extension.umn.edu/news/helping-your-family-plan-covid-19-novel-coronavirus.

McCann said there is one other important thing to remember about talking to children about COVID-19.

“This will be an ongoing conversation.”

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