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Kids and coronavirus: How to explain a pandemic to children

For parents, the stress of raising children on lockdown is real. So is helping them understand what’s happening.
Anne Arundel County, Md., residents receive free breakfast, lunch and dinner in Maryland on March 16.
Anne Arundel County, Md., residents receive free breakfast, lunch and dinner in Maryland on March 16. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Mar. 18, 2020
Updated Mar. 18, 2020

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Sunday dinner at Grammy and Grampy’s was a weekly ritual for Helen Hansen French’s family.

But her in-laws are older, and they’re not in perfect health. So last weekend, as the global coronavirus pandemic upended families’ lives across America, she had to tell her 7- and 3-year-old boys that Sunday dinner was off.

“That was a little hard on them,” she said. “What we’ve been talking about is, ‘Everyone has to do their part. Right now, if you and I got sick, we’d probably be fine. But if Grammy and Grampy got sick, they might not be so fine. We need to make sure we take care of our family.'”

French, an adjunct dance teacher at Hillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College, is in the same boat as a lot of parents this week: unexpectedly stuck at home with locked-in kids “under my feet all the time.”

The stress is daunting. So is the prospect of helping young children realize what the world’s dealing with in COVID-19 — especially since so many of them might not yet understand their parents’ anxiety.

“For a few kids, at first, it feels a little bit like a snow day,” said Sara DeWitt, vice president of PBS Kids Digital, calling from her home in northern Virginia while her kids, 8 and 5, ate lunch. “I feel like the parents are more anxious than the kids are. The kids are still kind of adjusting to this new reality.”

“Reality,” of course, is subjective. Every child is different. And so is their perception of a pandemic.

“We can’t talk about ‘kids’ as singular,” said Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College, as her 8- and 5-year-old boys had quiet time. “What a preschooler can understand is going to be radically different from an elementary school kid. And within elementary schools, the difference between a first- and fifth-grader is also pretty dramatic.”

For example: Ever try to explain the waiting until Christmas to a preschooler? Concepts like two weeks, six weeks, two months don’t really register at that age.

But in a week or two, even younger children will pick up on it. Maybe when they realize they haven’t seen their friends in days or weeks, or that a class project or family vacation has been postponed. When that realization hits, DeWitt said, it’s important for parents to meet kids on their level by contextualizing it, or linking it to a past experience: Remember that time when you couldn’t go to Julia’s birthday party because you got sick? This is like that.

Children also don’t experience social distancing the same way as adults, who are in constant contact with friends and loved ones via text and social media. Instructors at Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg, for example, traded the term “social distancing” for the more kid-friendly “respecting our friends’ bubbles.” But that only applies in the physical world, not the virtual world.

DeWitt encouraged grandparents to read stories to children over FaceTime or Skype to maintain emotional connections. Goodman-Wilson has talked to other parents about organizing online games and group hangouts so their kids could still socialize.

Which brings up another point: For a while, at least, your household screen time rules might have to go out the window.

“These are going to be unprecedented amounts of time spent at home for everyone,” Goodman-Wilson said. “Most of the guidelines around screen time in normal circumstances say, don’t let it interfere with their regular socialization — actually playing outside, actually playing with friends, and so on. If we’re going into a situation where those are not options available, then it’s kind of a moot concern.”

PBS Kids jumped in this month with a wealth of digital resources, from highlighting germ-centric content from Curious George and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to recommendations about how to talk to kids about the coronavirus. On March 13, they launched a daily newsletter filled with tips and activities. By Tuesday, it had 35,000 subscribers.

The group that might need to limit screen time the most, though, isn’t kids. It’s parents.

“We’re in a moment right now where most adults are feeling like they need to be checking the news constantly,” DeWitt said. “Your kids are going to pick up on that. ... Parents need to limit their own news time. Try really hard not to even be reading it when you’re around your kids. Choose times of the day when you can step into another room.”

What parents should do, as always, is remind their children they’ll be cared for, and ask questions to find out what they know. What have you heard about the coronavirus? What have your friends been saying? What have you seen on TV?

And as DeWitt said, Mr. Rogers’ classic advice still applies: When you see something scary in the news, look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.

Goodman-Wilson suggested having kids help find and donate to charities that deliver food to the needy. She also advocated donating to charities for victims of domestic violence, which tends to be more prevalent in times of stress and social isolation. She’s going to have her boys write letters and make art for residents of locked-down nursing homes.

“Kids are going to act out,” she said. “They’re probably going to be at their worst at a time when everyone is feeling the worst. But that’s not deliberate, and that doesn’t show a lack of empathy or compassion from them. It’s just a lack of understanding. And they can’t be expected to understand.”

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