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The Pandemic and Children: Tips for Talking with Kids

by Audrey Lane

April 2020

As of April 5, the North Dakota Health Department data indicated that Stutsman County had no reported cases of COVID-19. But no one in Stutsman County has escaped the impact of the disease, including the county's grade school children.

Map of North Dakota showing Stutsman County Children of all ages have some level of awareness of this pandemic. Most have already experienced disruption to their daily routine with the shift to remote schooling. Having a strategy for talking to children about the pandemic is important.

In this unprecedented time, it's natural for parents and caregivers to be stressed. Before starting a conversation with children, parents and caregivers should take time to calm themselves because this will help children feel calm too. Keep in mind a child's developmental stage. Use simple, but accurate terms: "A virus is something too small to see that can make people sick."

The thought process of school-aged children is sometimes described as ego-centric: their world view is centered on themselves and those closest to them. Consequently, it's important to directly address concerns. For example, "Right now, you are healthy, Mom and Dad are healthy, and so is your sister." Reinforce this with things they can do: "We can do our part to keep our family and other people safe by washing our hands and staying at home." Reassure children that they can ask questions and make sure they are given honest answers.

We can do our part to keep our family and other people safe by washing our hands and staying at home.

Consider limiting amount of exposure to media coverage and choose fact-based media. In a study of children affected by natural disasters, those who spent more time watching media coverage had a worse stress response.

Sadly, many children will experience the death of a loved one in association with this pandemic. Parents and caregivers should be prepared to talk to children about grief. Include information about the biological nature of death: "Their body and brain do not work; they are not alive." Allow the family's personal values surrounding life to shape this conversation. General recommendations include making sure parents acknowledge their own emotions, speaking directly, and anticipating that children will periodically continue to have questions.

The timeline around the continued effects of COVID-19 on Stutsman County is unclear: when schools will be reopened, when a vaccination may become available, and more. What is known is that this experience can impact a child's worldview for years to come. Once a "new normal" emerges, it will be important to continue to check in with school children about their thoughts and worries about what the pandemic meant to them.

About the Author

Audrey Lane is a third year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. She was selected as the Jamestown participant for the school's ROME program, or Rural Opportunities in Medical Education. The program includes teaching student doctors the importance of rural newspapers. As a future rural healthcare leader, Lane has written this column to provide health information for her ROME community. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.