COVID-19 - How Your Child Understands Traumatic News & Events

Television, radio, newspapers, social media, online articles, expert interviews, press conferences - there are countless ways to get information about COVID-19. For many parents it can be overwhelming and confusing to process all of the information. We know to wear a mask, social distance, and wash our hands to help keep our family physically healthy. But what can we do to help keep our children emotionally healthy?

The guiding principle for parents when considering their child’s emotional health in these circumstances is to help alleviate their child’s stress and anxiety. When children experience stress or anxiety it can prevent them from focusing on school work, affect their social relationships, and can even impact their physical health. But because children understand traumatic events differently than adults, understanding where your child is developmentally is crucial to knowing what information is appropriate to share with them.

Regardless of your child’s age, when children learn about events like COVID-19, it is not uncommon for children to be initially concerned about their own health and safety. They may wonder, ‘What is going to happen to me? Who is going to take care of me?’ Parents should calm these worries by explaining that their child’s health is their top priority and they are working to ensure their children are safe, like practicing social distancing. It’s important to take children’s feelings seriously and not dismiss them, as research shows this has tremendous value in the development of children’s self-esteem.*

As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, it is best to “not overwhelm children with information. When giving children bad news, it is always best to give bare facts followed by reassurance ….. Then follow their lead about how much more they are ready to hear.”**

For children six and under, try to shield them from news or the Internet, as young children’s thinking is very concrete and they have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. For example, if they see people on TV wearing hazmat suits they may believe that those events are right outside their front door. If your young child has learned about a tragedy or event, ask them what they heard and simply listen to them; there is no need to add information or offer an explanation as this age group tends to get scared easily. If your young child is asking questions know that what they are really concerned about is their own health and safety, not an explanation of how or why the events happened. Parents can say, ‘I know that was hard to see/hear. Sometimes bad things happen, but mom and dad will take care of you and protect you.’

For young children who have seen or heard about traumatic news, it is not uncommon for them to exhibit behaviors like separation anxiety. At this age, they feel safest when they are with their parents and can develop a strong need to be near them when they feel scared. When parents provide closeness, listen to their feelings and fears, and offer lots of comfort and distractions, they are not only helping their children move past their scared feelings, but they are also modeling how to handle stressful situations by getting help from loved ones.

Young children may also experience nightmares because of their scared feelings. Nightmares are not only frightening, but they are also problematic because a good night’s sleep is essential to help alleviate anxiety and stress - for children and parents. If young children are having nightmares, parents should provide comfort to help alleviate fears and reduce anxiety. One idea is to, before bedtime, explain to them that they are the author of their dreams and perhaps they are writing those unpleasant dreams because they are feeling anxious about the news. Parents can read books at bedtime like Mommy, Daddy, I Had A Bad Dream! to help them understand dreams and relieve some of their anxieties.

Again, it is best to try and keep tragic events and news away from young children. If you have older children, help them understand that they have more information than their younger sibling and remind them that you are available to help them with any of their questions or concerns.