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Talking with children about COVID-19: honesty is the best policy

Published on Wednesday, September 1, 2021

By: Annie Oeth, aoeth@umc.edu

With rising COVID-19 cases, children may be coping with topics such as illness and death and uncertainties such as, in some areas of the state, the return of face masks and distance learning.

Photo of Susan Buttross
Buttross

“The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have been difficult for everyone, but they can be particularly confusing for children,” said Dr. Susan Buttross, professor of child development at UMMC, principal investigator of the Mississippi Thrive! Child Health Development Project and host of “Southern Remedy: Relatively Speaking” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Children may be grieving the loss of a grandparent or worried after a parent contracts COVID-19, or they may be adjusting to changes at school such as mask requirements or a move to distance learning in school districts with high rates of COVID-19 infection.

“Honesty is always the best policy,” Buttross said. “Children's feelings should be acknowledged, and their questions should be answered honestly and explained in ways they can understand.  At the same time, you want to make sure to frame the answers in a way that allows the child to feel that there are things that they can do to stay safe and be protected,” Buttross said.

“Let children understand that there are things that they can do to protect themselves and keep others safe, like wearing masks, washing their hands well and keeping them away from their mouth and face,” she said. “As soon as they can, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a great way to protect themselves and others that they love.”

Photo of Madeline Wilson
Wilson

Madeline Wilson, a Children’s of Mississippi child life specialist, offers some simple, honest answers for questions children might have about COVID-19.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a virus that makes some people very sick. A virus is a type of germ that is very tiny, and if they get inside of our bodies, they can make us feel sick.

How does the virus spread?

Since germs are so tiny, they can spread very easily from person to person, making people sick. Germs can be spread by touching other people or things. It can also be spread by coughing and sneezing.

To stop germs from spreading by touching, it is important that we wash our hands. To stop germs from spreading by coughing and sneezing, it is important to wear a mask over our nose and mouth. Also, it is important to cover your mouth and nose with your elbow if you cough or sneeze, so your germs don’t spread to others.

Washing your hands after touching, coughing and sneezing is always a good idea to stop germs from spreading.

What if someone I love has COVID-19?

Some people who are sick with COVID-19 feel like they have a bad cold. They can feel better by staying at home and resting.

Some people who are sick with COVID may need to go to the hospital so doctors and nurses can help them feel better. In the hospital, doctors and nurses may give them medicine to help their bodies feel better, and then they can go home.

Sometimes, COVID can make people very sick – so sick that their bodies aren’t working like they should. Sometimes, these people must go to the hospital so doctors and nurses can use medicines and machines to try to help their bodies work again.

What if I know someone who dies?

Sometimes, the machines and medicines aren’t strong enough to make their bodies better. If their bodies can’t get better, then they cannot work. If our bodies cannot work, the body cannot live, and they will die.

How to support and reassure children

Children tend to pick up on emotions and feelings of the adults around them, Wilson said. “The calmer you are, the calmer the children will likely be.”

Encouraging open, honest communication between you and your child is one of the best ways to deal with a child’s concerns, Wilson said.

“Reassure children that they are safe and taken care of,” she said. “Check in periodically to see how they are feeling and if they have any questions.”

Familiar routines are always comforting to children, Wilson said. “As much as possible, try to keep routines normal, because predictability allows the child to feel secure and in control.”


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