How to Explain the Coronavirus Pandemic to Young Children

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a level of global confusion unmatched in living memory. However, one group of citizens that may be even more concerned by the outbreak is children—particularly toddlers and younger kids.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says that while conversations with young children might be difficult, they are important. As of March 24, 2020, 9:28 a.m. ET, Johns Hopkins University reports confirmed COVID-19 cases have reached 46,450 in the U.S., with 593 confirmed deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also confirmed that all 50 states have reported cases of COVID-19.

iStock Children COVID-19 Explainer
Stock image: It is important to have a conversation with young children about the coronavirus disease even though it might be difficult, says AACAP. iStock

Self- or home isolation is recommended, especially to protect the most vulnerable in American communities. On March 16, the White House announced a program called "15 Days to Slow the Spread" affecting all age groups.

To help children understand the current situation, AACAP recommends the following steps:

  • Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions but understand that it's best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they're ready
  • Answer questions honestly—children will usually know or eventually find out if you're "making things up." It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future
  • Use words and concepts children can understand—gear your explanations to the child's age, language, and developmental level
  • Help children find accurate and up to date information such as fact sheets from the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times—some information might be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over might also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance
  • Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings, and reactions—let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate
  • Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they might worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members or they might also worry about friends or relatives who travel or who live far away
  • Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises—it's fine to let children know that they are safe in their house or in their school, but you can't promise that there will be no cases of coronavirus in your state or community
  • Let children know that there are lots of people helping the people affected by the coronavirus outbreak. This will be a good opportunity to show children that when something scary or bad happens, there are people to help
  • Children learn from watching their parents and teachers and they will be very interested in how you respond to news about the coronavirus outbreak. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults
  • Don't let children watch too much television with frightening images—the repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing
  • Children who have experienced serious illness or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to graphic news reports or images of illness or death—these children may need extra support and attention

Children who are preoccupied with questions or concerns about the coronavirus
outbreak should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child might need additional help, according to the AACAP, includes:

  • Ongoing sleep disturbances
  • Intrusive thoughts or worries
  • Recurring fears about illness or death
  • Reluctance to leave parents or go outside

If such behaviors persist, the AACAP recommends speaking to your child's pediatrician, family physician or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.