Communicating with children about COVID-19

A guide for key worker parents and carers when talking to children

If you’re a key worker parent or carer, Dr Sarah Helps, a clinical psychologist and consultant family therapist at the Tavistock Clinic in North London, has shared this short podcast about family communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communication within families is very diverse based on family, cultural, spiritual, religious ideas and past experiences. We also know parents are the people who know their children best and are the people who know best how to communicate about tricky things with their children.

Some things to consider about how to talk

  • Are you a family who talks lots or little about worries and feelings?
  • What family, cultural, spiritual ideas do you draw on when talking about worrying things?
  • What’s the question you most dread your child asking?

Take a bit of time, work out for yourself what the most challenging questions might be, and then create a space for your children. Let them know that there is nothing they can’t ask you in these very tricky times.

Thinking about when and where to talk

  • Do you usually talk best in the car or bus, or at bedtime?
  • If you talk best in the car or bus, how can you create a similar side-by-side environment? e.g. by doing the washing-up together, playing a video game or some other daily activity?
  • Keep opening up a space in which your child might ask questions. It doesn’t matter if the child doesn’t make use of the space, the important thing is for them to know that the space is there

Your child’s developmental age, stage, the intellectual ability, the problem solving and their social abilities will all affect how you might respond to the kinds of questions they will be considering.

Working through the conversation

  • Focus on what the child needs – if you aren’t sure what the child is asking, explore their question, don’t avoid
  • Wonder out loud how they might be feeling
  • Be realistic and optimistic, tell the truth in a way that a child can understand
  • Acknowledge that living through a pandemic is a very scary time and that lots of people have big, messy feelings. Both children and adults might have big feelings that they don’t understand and that is very normal

Be brave. Give it a go. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well the first time. There’s plenty of opportunities to go back and review. It’s better to try to talk about difficult issues, to fail, to get it wrong, to be clumsy and to try again through practice. That’s what enables parents and children to communicate most effectively.

Helping you manage

  • Rehearse answers to the questions you most dread
  • Share your child’s worries with a trusted relative or friend, so that they can also support your child. You can also use support groups. It’s always better to communicate
  • If talking is tricky then try drawing your feelings, swapping emojis via text messages or keeping a COVID-19 diary to map thoughts, feelings and questions

It’s OK to say you don’t know and that you will find out, but do come back to the subject if only to give an update that you still don’t know.

In recent weeks children have asked a range of questions about COVID-19 in relation to their key working parents. There are no straightforward answers. The important thing is to rehearse and prepare, particularly for the questions that you might find most difficult. Here are some suggestions to help you think about how you’d like to respond:

Are you going to catch Covid-19? ‘It’s possible’

Who will look after me if you can’t? (This needs a straight answer and will depend on your individual circumstances)

Will you die? ‘It’s very unlikely that I will die but it’s possible I will get sick for a while.’

Why do you have to be a key worker? ‘It’s a job I enjoy / am good at / take pride in / pays money for us to eat and live

Why can’t you stay at home like my friends’ parents? ‘Because I have an important job looking after people.’

Why do I have to go to school? ‘So that you can be safely looked after when I am at work.’

Is it safe to go to school? ‘Yes, and it helps me to know that you are safe while I’m at work.’ Consider asking what the child has learnt to keep themselves safe when out of the house at school

If it’s safe to go to school, why can’t I go out with my friends? ‘I know it’s hard not seeing your friends. Teachers can help you keep a safe distance away from each other at school. The best way to reduce the number of people who get infected is to reduce mixing with people.’

When will the lock-down end? ‘We don’t know but it won’t be for ever. The government are talking to the scientists to make decisions about when we can safely start ordinary life again.’

Are you safe? ‘Yes I’m as safe as anyone can be and I know what to do to keep myself safe at work.’

Guides and learning

See our guide on Balancing home schooling and working

The British Psychological Society

The British Psychological Society have shared two great resources for key workers and their children on navigating the emotional effects of the Covid-19 pandemic:

1. When your parent is a key worker – Advice for children and young people during the Covid-19 pandemic

2. Advice for key worker parents – Helping your child adapt to changes due to the Covid-19 pandemic

The British Psychological Society is a registered charity which acts as the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK. We support and enhance the development and application of psychology for the greater public good, disseminating our knowledge to increase public awareness.