What to tell kids and teens about COVID-19 and how to deal with the new reality of closed schools

Dr. Liza Varvogli
11 min readMar 14, 2020

From “Hurray! Schools are closed!” to “Mom, am I going to die?” children and adolescents are already affected by the news, and the worldwide spread fears concerning the coronavirus. Kids have all kinds of worries around who will get sick, how bad that’s going to be if their parents or grandparents are going to be affected, if there are going to be deaths in the family… There are also concerns about their daily life, such as new policies around playdates, sleepovers, homework, screen time, video gaming, and the like. Perhaps the biggest worry for kids is “I don’t know what to do now that my everyday life is not what it used to be, and I have no idea how it will be.”

Uncertainty brings stress and fear for the younger and older alike. Children observe what adults do -not just what they say- to make sense of the new reality and figure out how to respond to this global pandemic. If parents stress out excessively, if they lose their cool or if they flat out panic, kids will follow suit. Now it’s the time to lead by example and explain to your kids that there’s no need to panic. Scientists around the world work hard to figure out a solution, and governments are taking measures to slow down the virus and protect the public. But that’s not all kids need. They need tools on how to handle the crisis themselves.

What to say: start off asking your child what they know about the coronavirus outbreak

Asking your child what they know about the coronavirus will help you to meet them where they are and check what information they have and what fears they harbor. Kids tend to get all kinds of different information that’s often inaccurate or misleading. “Am I going to die?” or “Everyone who gets it will die” are some of children’s, even adolescents’ fears. Start off by listening to what your kid has to tell you, what they know, what they fear.

The invitation to a discussion in the form of “Tell me what you know about the coronavirus” is appealing to adolescents because this way, they are encouraged to express their opinion, and they are not getting a lecture! Asking them to open up and allowing the communication channels to be free and available, you will enable them to talk about what worries them. Remember these essential keys to effective communication:

· Listen carefully, without interrupting

· Acknowledge the child’s feelings

· Give practical tips on self-protection (i.e.., handwashing)

What you think is irrelevant! Stay calm and positive when talking to kids and adolescents

Maybe you have a theory of your own; maybe you disagree with the government, maybe you have a different belief system. This is not the time to impose your ideas- this is the time to support your child in a practical manner. Kids and adolescents already have too many stressors going on in their lives; we don’t need to add more worries to their load. We obviously need to provide accurate, scientific information matter-of-factly, without causing more alarm.

Ø Kids follow and imitate not just what their parents say, but what parents do. Choose wisely!

Ø Don’t transmit your fear over the phone or social media, thinking your kid is not listening or is not interested. In difficult times kids have their eyes and ears open to receive any piece of relevant information.

Ø If your child is under the age of 6 and not exposed to older children, you may consider not starting the coronavirus discussion.

Don’t lie! Ever!

Ø Don’t say to a younger child “It’s nothing” because they have heard it’s “something” and probably they have heard an exaggerated version of the reality. Kids worry not just about their health, but the health of their family and friends. If your child seems worried about getting sick, you can say something along the lines of “In our family, we are keeping all hygiene rules, your school is taking care of this issue (insert here what they do), and all the people who work in the health care system are working hard to keep us all healthy.”

Ø Don’t say to an adolescent anything dramatic such as “Don’t you dare go out, you ‘ll get infected and you ‘ll die,” as adolescents know the facts and aren’t afraid of danger. However, teens also tend to get misinformed or pick up half-truths, which leads them to less than optimal decision-making. When dealing with teens, it’s better to give them the facts, be accurate, and not overly emotional. Don’t threaten them, explain that you don’t want to punish them, but to keep them and the rest of the population safe. Make clear that the problem isn’t about getting sick -chances are that young people won’t have major symptoms and will recover fast- but it’s about not allowing the coronavirus to spread. When too many people will get sick and require medical care, there won’t be enough for all. And we do this because we care about others, either our grandparents or people that we don’t even know, but they are the parents or grandparents of someone else.

Ø Reassure your child that everyone in the family is healthy and safe, if that’s true.

Ø Remain calm and collected, and don’t discuss your personal fears with your child.

Don’t blame others

Ø When there’s a crisis, people tend to need to find culprits and start blaming. They do this because that gives them a faulty sense of control and the hope that normalcy and order will be restored.

Ø Avoid stereotypes about people, their habits, ethnic groups, and countries. They didn’t want to get sick from the coronavirus, and they didn’t want it to spread either!

Ø Try to understand the measures that your government has taken from the perspective of public health and don’t blame experts if you happen to have a different opinion. Educate yourself! It’s not a matter of opinions, but a matter of facts!

Give your attention and time to your child

If you are in a district where the schools closed down, it may be difficult being home with the kids around 24/7. It disrupts your schedule, your work, your routine. Remember that your kids have the same experience! That’s the time they need you more, for reassurance, encouragement, and support. Engage in all kinds of different conversations, not just about the coronavirus, but about other issues that bring stress and anxiety in their lives. The coronavirus discussion may be the catalyst for a discussion about your child’s fears and concerns. After all, kids are known for their tendency to bottle up their worries; they seldom come to parents to tell them, “I’m anxious about this,” or “I worry about that.” They tend to complain of tummy aches or headaches. Discussions with a parent or trusted adult are the way to expose underlying stress and anxieties.

Not sure how to best respond to a worried child? The simple and sincere “I love you, and I’m here for you” works miracles! If the problem is deeper or persistent, consult with a mental health professional.

Reduce sources of negativity and stress

Ø Turn the TV off! Get the news from a different, trustworthy source.

Ø If you must watch TV, listen to the news once per day and don’t let it broadcast all day long.

Ø Alert your teen that there are many sources of fake news on the internet, and most of the “information” they get on their social media feed comes from random people who post fake news. Direct them to credible sources like their school’s website or major national health organizations websites.

Ø Remember that being always on the lookout for new information about the coronavirus is in and of itself a stressful endeavor. Take a break from the information overload of the days and engage in some stress-reducing activities.

Recognize your child’s irritability

Remember that kids are creatures of habit and action! With school closed and the global worry around the coronavirus pandemic, you ‘ll soon find out that the initial enthusiasm about the bonus time-off is wearing off. After all, this no-school period is far from a vacation. Kids are robbed of their familiar routine, of access to after-school activities, and, even more important, of their friends. Kids at home soon become bored, irritable, and complain, “I have nothing to do,” and “You are mean! Why do I have to stay home?” or they fight with their siblings.

Observe what’s going on and name it to tame it! Label what you see as “my child’s irritability” and refrain from viewing it as bad behavior. Don’t get in a fight with your kid; it’s not going to solve anything! Take some deep breaths and invite your kid to talk.

Ø Listen with empathy

Ø Allow your kid to vent

Ø Remind them you didn’t make the lockdown rules

Ø Remind them the new rules are for everybody’s safety; it’s not a form of punishment

Ø Brainstorm together about activities your child can do at home

Ø Encourage positive choices and initiatives

Ø Encourage decisions that show they understand the situation

Ø Strike the right balance between homework and leisure activities

Ø With the new situation, consider relaxing your screen time rules.

Maintain a daily routine and a normal schedule

Routines and schedules help reduce stress and maintain a sense of calm and normalcy. This way, the whole family will be more at peace and have a sense of control in their life.

Ø In periods of crisis, it’s essential for kids and teens to keep a routine and a schedule.

Ø Now that kids don’t have to wake up early for school the next day, they will ask you to stay up later. Consider changing bedtime/waking up rules and keep them consistent with the new schedule.

Ø Make sure that kids wake up on the agreed-upon time, and they change into their day clothes. Lounging around in pajamas sounds comfortable but doesn’t promote the sense of normalcy we are discussing!

Ø Encourage your child to “grow your mind and learn.” Remind them that reading a book, making an art project, collecting information about a topic of their interest all qualify for learning.

Ø Remind your child that this is an excellent opportunity to study on a subject they are behind or practice on something to get better.

Ø Ask your child to write an essay, a memoir, an opinion, to interview a relative or make a video with the views of all family members about the coronavirus outbreak or any other topic of broad interest- anything that’s productive, requiring the kid to think and produce a tangible result.

Ø If things are tough, put things in perspective and consider allowing your child more screen time: It’s better for your kid to watch a quality movie than fighting with their siblings, while you try to work from home!

Ø Encourage your child to do something they like and contribute to the common good in the family. Examples include but are not limited to baking a dessert, helping in cooking or cleaning, picking up a new chore, spring-cleaning their room, anything that empowers the child, giving them a sense they are important, and that their actions count!

The importance of social connection

Remember that kids and teens rely heavily on their friendships and social connections for their wellbeing

Ø Recognize that now that schools are closed your kid has an increased need to keep in touch with their friends. This is easier for teens who own a phone and have social media accounts. Do not reduce access to their phones/social media now that school’s out. By allowing your teen to keep connected to their friends through social media, you reduce the likelihood of them going out.

Ø Explain how important it is to avoid indoor public places and how this allows the coronavirus to spread.

Ø For younger kids who don’t have access to their own smartphone, collaborate with other parents and create a group chat where they can connect with their classmates or consider using the parent’s phone to connect to their friends for a scheduled and monitored video chat. Or help your child create and send a short video message to their friend from your phone to the phone of the other child’s parent.

Ø Encourage your child to call their grandparents or other older relatives who may be isolated and perhaps scared.

Ø Ask your child to write a letter, card, or make a drawing that you can later mail or send electronically to grandparents and older relatives.

Ø Encourage your kid to go outside to walk, bike, rollerblade, or run in the open air.

Ø Go out for a walk as a family.

Ø Use the extra free time as a family to reconnect with one another and have a good time!

Focus on what you do as a family to stay healthy

Kids and teens feel empowered and optimistic when they believe there’s something they can do in a tough situation.

Remind your child that they….

Ø Must wash their hands when they come home, before and after a meal, after using the bathroom

Ø Must wash their hands with soap and running water for as long as it takes to sing the “Happy birthday song” two times

Ø Sneeze or cough in their sleeve

Ø Use tissues and throw them in the trash

Ø Use hand-sanitizer often

Ø Learn to open doors in public places using their leg or touching knobs with a disposable tissue

And of course, to stay healthy, we all need to…

v Rest and sleep an adequate amount of time according to our age

v Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables

v Move and exercise on a regular basis

v Relax and manage our stress

v Cultivate meaningful social connections

v And maintain an optimistic attitude

Remember that you have more power than you think and more control of the situation than you fear!

And although it’s hard adapting to new challenging conditions and rules, you can invest in bonding as a family, doing fun things together, and rediscovering how powerful love is!

There’s always something positive that can come out even from the most challenging situations, and that’s true for the younger and older alike!

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Dr. Liza Varvogli

Ph.D. in Psychology| Harvard-trained| Psychotherapist| Stress Management Professor|Parenting & Relationships Expert|Meditator|Positive thinker|Solution-oriented