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Home / Articles / Children and Teens / How to Talk to Trauma-Sensitive Kids About COVID-19

How to Talk to Trauma-Sensitive Kids About COVID-19

The pandemic and quarantine can be triggering for all ages

How to Talk to Trauma-Sensitive Kids About COVID-19

The first time I put on a face mask in front of my kids, before leaving our house to run to the drug store, their eyes widened.

You look funny, they said. But they didn’t laugh. 

Then my 3-year-old asked, “Does that keep the virus out?” to which her older sister swiftly replied in that I-know-everything-tone six-year-olds have, “Yes, Lucy. Or Mama will get the virus on her and die.”

Whoa. I took off my mask and sat down at the table with them. It was time to abate some fears. 

For months, they’d been hearing about the Coronavirus, COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine. It was why they couldn’t go to school or the park. It was making some people go to the hospital. It was why some people had died. It was why we had to wash our hands a lot. And it was why, sometimes, they saw their mom crying while watching the news.

This pandemic information is a lot for adults to take in, much less children. And when you have children who have previously endured some type of trauma, including domestic violence, any major shift in their normal routine, especially one that brings with it an air of danger, can throw them for an extra hard loop. Parents and caregivers may instinctively want to shield children from the scary news of late, but experts say it’s more important to talk to them openly and honestly, rather than keeping them in the dark. 

Dr. Tonya Hansel is the program director of the Doctorate of Social Work at Tulane University School of Social Work. She’s an expert in dealing with trauma and has provided mental and behavioral health services to both adults and children following natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as well as the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010.

We asked Hansel some questions parents and caregivers might have in the light of the current pandemic—how they can help kids and teens understand it while honoring whatever feelings that may arise as a result. The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting quarantine have been stressful for adults and children alike. How best do parents and caregivers explain what’s going on to children, balancing honesty and abating fear at the same time?

Hansel: If you do not address things with your child, they are forced to make sense of things and piece together details, often in more of an imaginative way—or magical thinking—which is often far worse than reality. So it is very important to have conversations with your child. Your explanation should be based on the age, development and interest of your child.  The CDC has wonderful resources and COVID-19 facts, specific to talking with your children here.  

All Ages: Stress the importance of handwashing. 

Young children (under age 5): They need only the very basics (i.e. people are getting sick and we need to stay home to protect ourselves and others). With this age group, parents need to reinforce safety (i.e. things are different right now and our goal is to keep safe—you are loved). 

School-age children: They can have a bit more detail, but only go as far as their interest with explanations. “There is a new virus that is spreading all over the world and we do not know very much about it.  The majority of people that get the virus will recover after about a week, but for some people, it can be very dangerous. That is why we must all work to protect others and prevent community spread.  Scientists are working very hard to make things better.” 

Set aside time each day to ask if your child has any questions—responses should be short responses and “I do not know,” is a perfectly acceptable response.  Children at this age also pick up on how parents are feeling, so do not be afraid to say things like, “I am scared too, but we will get through this together.”   

Adolescents: They are most likely hearing information about COVID-19 and it is important to make sure they have facts.  Speak with your children about false claims on the internet or social media.  This age group is particularly vulnerable to the loss of school and social activities.  Affirm their disappointment in ‘missing out’ and work together with them to think about alternatives.  Explain that this is temporary and emphasize their role in helping the community by staying home.  It is also a good time to discuss resilience (ability to bounce back after adversity) and things may be different post COVID, but that they play a role in determining what the “new normal” will be—this will help reinforce their self-esteem and sense of master (both critical at this age).

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DS: What concerns should parents of children who have survived previous trauma, specifically domestic violence, have during a time like this? We talked in a previous story about a quarantine possibly being a trigger for survivors who have felt controlled in the past by an abusive partner—could there be similar triggers in children?

Hansel: The same survivor mentality that helps adults overcome traumatic experiences can also be triggered in children. While this is a protective function, it can also lead increased anxiety and reminders of past traumas, even if they are very different types of experiences. For children, this usually presents as regression (acting younger or unable/unwilling to do things that they used to do). They may be scared to sleep away from parents, they may be more tearful, they may experience bedwetting or food hoarding. 

For children that have been exposed to domestic violence, the loss of control and their way of life may parallel what they are experiencing now. The similarities may also trigger responses that were suppressed, as they may feel more secure and perceive this is a safer time to process. 

The most important thing for parents to do is recognize that this represents a normal response for children. Right now, children need more love, reassurance that emotions are normal, that you have similar fears/feelings and that together we will get through this time. 

When symptoms or problems become overwhelming or without reprieve, please contact your state/local health department for telehealth options in your area.

DS: What about children who fear their parents could get sick or die (and thus, leave them alone). How can you alleviate fear surrounding that?

Hansel: Emphasize that the majority of people that get COVID-19 recover, so it is unlikely that even if they get sick that they would die. Also help ground them in the current day, that we cannot predict the future, but today we are going to have dinner, go for a walk, play a game, etc.

Get the latest updates and information about COVID-19 at The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. This page has more tips and information about talking to kids about the virus.

Are you dealing with this quarantine as a single parent? New to it or not, read “Keeping Your Cool as a First-Time Single Parent” to learn five cool-down options when the stress starts to overwhelm you. 

Photo by CDC on Unsplash.