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How To Talk To Your Little Kids About Coronavirus

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The following article was originally published March 9, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with LAist and KPCC.

LAist and KPCC logos

Story by Mariana Dale

Coronavirus information poster | Alyssa Jeong Perry/LAist
Coronavirus information poster | Alyssa Jeong Perry/LAist

As coronavirus spreads, even very young children will likely hear or see something about the disease. When they do, they'll probably have questions.

To get some tips, I talked to a couple of experts: Children's Hospital Los Angeles clinical psychologist Karen Rogers and Tovah P. Klein, Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development.

They said for starters, it's useful to take a peek inside a young child's brain.

Research tells us there are more than one million neural connections made every second in the first few years of a child's life.

"They tend to be very egocentric," Rogers said. "When they see things or hear things that are new information they assume that is immediately relevant to them."

Adults need to help kids put information into context, the experts said.

"Their ability to develop and move forward and really explore the world comes from an inner sense of safety and security," Klein said.

OBJECTS ON TV ARE [NOT] CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR

When you and I see an image on TV we can tell whether it's from nearby or far away.

Children don't always know that.

So when they see an image of someone sick on TV in China or hear about schools closing in Washington, parents need to explain these things are happening far away.

Rogers said adults should learn the basic facts — for example, that very few people in Southern California have gotten sick.

Kids might also assume the people they see on TV might be the same as those who live in their neighborhood.

"[Explain] to children that it doesn't matter where your family came from and it doesn't matter what your ethnic background is or what you look like, that isn't what makes people get sick," Rogers said.

STAY COOL, STAY CALM

The way adults talk to kids also matters.

"If a child is in the presence of an adult who is feeling very frightened, the child is very likely to pick that up and to feel frightened themselves," Rogers said.

So take a deep breath before embarking on these conversations.

Try to reserve worried conversations related to coronavirus — The store is out of hand sanitizer! What will we do if the kids' school closes? We're going to have to cancel our vacation! — until your child is out of earshot.

"When people around them are upset, tense, angry, yelling, they read those emotions, but they don't understand the content of them," Klein said. "That's scary for them."

Newsflash: Adults make mistakes. If you do express your frustration at or around a child, you can go back to them later and make amends, she said.

Klein offered an example of such a conversation: "Mommy was talking about something she was worried about but I'm OK and I'm still going to take care of you, you don't need to worry."

It's important to calm kids' fears because anxiety can interfere with the play and learning that help children grow and develop, she said.

"If they're anxious, they're monitoring all the time, 'What's going on? Am I OK? Are you OK?'" Klein said. "It's hard to absorb new information or learn or play or explore if you're preoccupied with, 'Uh-oh, something's wrong.'"

"On a day-to-day basis they need to feel like, 'My world is OK and the people in my world are OK,'" Klein said.

ABOUT HANDWASHING

Remember that your young child isn't going to necessarily understand the difference between 5, 10 and 20 seconds of scrubbing.

"They have no sense of time, the brain can't do that yet," Klein said.

She suggests a song to help keep track of time, soap in fun colors or a washcloth with a colorful design to make handwashing appealing.

"Keep it light rather than scaring them," Klein said.

TOOLS FOR TEACHING

The L.A. County Department of Public Health has guidance for the parents of young children on what's known about how COVID-19 spreads, its symptoms and prevention. The tipsheet is also available in SpanishTraditional ChineseSimplified ChineseKoreanArmenianTagalogArabicFarsiCambodianRussianJapanese and Vietnamese.

For elementary-aged kids, check out NPR's comic on coronavirus or this episode of the kids' podcast, Brains On!

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an extensive curriculum (activities, coloring pages and songs) for teaching children 3 to 10 years old about the flu, but most of the lessons refer to general hygiene, like:

  • Wash. Your. Hands. Songs like "Happy Birthday" (sung twice) and the ABCs can help little kids who can't yet count to 20 remember the right length of time for scrubbing.
  • Cover your cough and sneeze with your elbow (aka, "the Dracula") If there's a tissue handy, use that.
  • Germs are tiny organisms that can make you sick.
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