Outer Banks Mom: Talking to kids about the coronavirus

"With local athletics being postponed and events and birthday parties being canceled left and right I’m hopeful that my children will remember that these minor inconveniences aren’t just about their own health but about the health and well-being of others."

Nearly 10 years ago, just weeks after we had moved to the Outer Banks, there was a storm.

It was one of those storms that came on quickly and powerfully and instead of moving off the coast quickly as predicted, it hovered over the beach. The forecast quickly changed and the winds intensified.

Around here, we know that with wind and rain the roads can flood in minutes and so the call was made to get the kids home from school sooner rather than later.

My son, Joey was in elementary school at the time and I rushed from work to get to school. As I sat in the pickup line the wind and the rain was beginning to shake my car a little bit but it certainly wasn’t anything dangerous.

As my car approached the small corridor where Joey was walking from, I could see the panic on his face. Worse, I could see that he had been crying. He got in the car and started sobbing uncontrollably.

Quickly finding a place to park, I climbed into the back seat to try to understand what was wrong. Pulling my son onto my lap I began asking questions. He was shaking and his cheeks were soaked from tears.

He blurted out, “This is a hurricane!”

You see, we had just moved from Pennsylvania and hurricanes weren’t something that he understood at the time. While he knew it was hurricane season, he didn’t know that hurricanes come with days of advanced notice and preparation.

So when a friend in the school departure line jokingly told him that this was a hurricane, he lost it.

He was terrified of a hurricane because he didn’t know enough about them. I know that this is sometimes the case for me as well. If I don’t have all of the information, I’m afraid.

With the coronavirus beginning to be a part of our thought process then it is very likely that our children are thinking about it too.

That small, scared little boy from my story is now a young man that stands taller than me. He’s faster and stronger than me too!

Yet, last night as I was folding laundry, he was giving me updates on the virus.

Minute-by-minute, he had an update and while he was far from fearful, I know that his purpose in talking to me about the NBA season being canceled was to gauge my reaction and see how I was feeling about this new and very contagious virus.

In true teenager fashion, it was his way of getting information from me without acting like he needed it.

First and foremost, I’ve been using this opportunity to give my children an extra lesson in empathy.

With local athletics being postponed and events and birthday parties being canceled left and right I’m hopeful that my children will remember that these minor inconveniences aren’t just about their own health but about the health and well-being of others.

With four children, it’s important for my husband and I to be their safe place, so I consulted local experts and I’m passing along their advice to you!

  • Communicate. Keeping your children in the dark may actually make them worry more. If the only information that they hear about this virus is on the school bus or in the lunch line from a friend then we can only expect them to get misinformation. We all played the classic game of Telephone when we were kids. Can you just imagine how the information is relayed from kid to kid about an unknown illness? Provide your child with reassurance that you know about the Coronavirus.
  • Be developmentally appropriate. With our 3-year-old, we’re explaining that there are germs on everything that we touch so we need to keep our hands away from our faces. We are also reiterating proper hand washing techniques. With our elementary age child we are explaining how the Coronavirus spreads through the air and sits on surfaces by using play bubbles and showing her that just like a bubble can land on the counter, a cough can spread through the air too.
  • Lead by example. Andrea Johnson, MA, LPC, LMHC shared that this is an opportunity to prepare our children for how we hope they will react in a high stress situation. “This is a teaching moment for children to understand that we can’t entirely control what happens, but we can choose how we react. If we obsess over the media, speak about it excessively and buy 1,000,000 things of hand sanitizer, we teach our kids that worry and obsession is an effective way to manage fear. For example, which plane you would prefer to board? Would you feel safer with a pilot that’s cautious yet confident with healthy knowledge of potential dangers or the one terrified of flying? I’m with the cautious and educated pilot, because I would feel safe. Kids need to see the same thing, so they feel safe.”
  • Focus on what they can control. Kellie Flock, PA-C with Surf Pediatrics stated that “Public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 outbreak can be just as stressful for children and teens as it is for adults. It is important to acknowledge that children may have anxiety about catching the virus or fear over something they cannot control. Focusing on things they can control that may help keep them healthy is key. Reinforce the importance of good hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, not touching their faces, and staying home when sick. When kids feel more confident about their ability to keep themselves healthy, they tend to be less worried and anxious.”
  • Be available. Local Counselor, Katie Dunavant, LPC, NCC of Wellness Within Professional Counseling encourages us to allow our children to talk openly. “Be available to your children more than ever before. It’s okay if you cannot answer every question they have; being available to your child during this time is what matters. Children may need extra attention from you during this time. Allow them to talk openly about their feelings, concerns, and fears with trusted adults. It is important for children to know they have someone who will listen to them. Keep the lines of communication open.”

I know I was grateful for these tips from our local and trusted professionals and I hope that they assist you in having big conversations with your children. My thoughts, love and prayers are going out to our entire community in hopes that we all stay healthy.

Special thanks to Andrea, Kellie and Katie for weighing in on this important topic!

Audra Krieg
About Audra Krieg 7 Articles
Audra Krieg is a professional photographer, blogger, writer and mother of four living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.