Easier ways to explaining coronavirus to kids

Theodore Premako, 3, plays along the banks of the Santa Clara River, beneath the Iron Horse Trail bridge located off Magic Mountain Parkway on March 29. Courtesy of Josh Premako

The lives of many Santa Clarita Valley residents have been completely upended over the last month, and many are struggling to wrap their heads around the coronavirus.

With no school, no friends, nor much leaving the house at all these days, children are no exception to that.

For kids, this pandemic can be just as overwhelming as it is for parents, but hearing about COVID-19 secondhand from school, television or online, can certainly exacerbate things.

That’s why it’s important to talk to your kids about COVID-19 and the current health crisis, making sure they, too, understand what’s going on out in the world during these trying times. But how do you explain something without much precedent to a child?

Saugus resident Mandy Dofflow was able to use her 5-year-old daughter Avery’s past illness as an easy way to explain COVID-19 and why she has to stay home.

“When she was 3, she got pretty sick (with) a blood disorder that has since gone away,” Dofflow said. “At that time, we explained to her that she had good guys in her body that were trying to fight off these bad guys, and that’s why she had to rest and not jump around.”

Since then, the Dofflows have used the analogy for other situations, as Avery seemed to understand it quite well.

When the “Safer at Home” order was put in place and Avery had to stay home, Dofflow simply elaborated on the analogy, telling Avery “the reason why we have to stay home is we have to protect ourselves from ‘the bad guys.’”

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She went on to explain that some people, like older adults or those with underlying health conditions, like Avery once had, had weaker “good guys,” so staying home kept them safe.

“You could have a bad guy on your body that’s not hurting you because you’re strong, but then when you go and hug grandpa, it could jump on grandpa and can attack his good guys,” Dofflow added. “So, it kind of clicked for her.”

While Avery was still frustrated she couldn’t play with her friends, it got a little easier when she understood why and that it wasn’t just affecting her.

“I said, ‘Your friends are home, my friends are home, we’re all home. This is what everyone’s doing right now,’” Dofflow said. “She was more understanding of that, like, ‘Oh, we’re all protecting everybody’s good guys.’”

Whether you pick good guys and bad guys or big, icky germs, analogies such as this one won’t work for every child, but there are still a number of things to remember when talking to your own children.

Parents shouldn’t be afraid of talking to their kids about COVID-19, as avoiding it can make them worry more, not less, according to Janine Domingues, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

When preparing to talk to your kids, Monica Dedhia, program manager of access, crisis and community engagement at the Child & Family Center, suggests starting with yourself, as we know kids really take their cues from their parents.

“So really focusing on their own self care first (is important),” Dedhia said. “And, when they are starting this conversation with their child, doing their best to remain as calm as possible.”

Theodore Premako, 3, walks with his “hiking stick” along one of the paths at Placerita Canyon State Park on March 15, during an afternoon family outing. Courtesy of Josh Premako

Dr. Ashley Zucker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California, agrees, adding that parents should be open and honest, while remaining age-appropriate, only sharing the necessary information.

“We don’t want to focus on things that might increase anxiety, but being very matter of fact, sticking to the facts and recognizing if it becomes too much for the child if you’re seeing them get overly anxious or shutting down,” Dedhia added. “We don’t want to pressure our kids to talk if they’re not ready, but there are a lot of nonverbal ways of supporting our kids as well.”

If you notice your child is overwhelmed or stressed, try to find different activities to funnel those feelings, Dedhia said.

Both Dedhia and Zucker agree that it’s also important to comfort them, acknowledging their feelings and letting them know those feelings are valid.

“It’s really (important to) normalize that it’s OK not to be OK right now — these are extraordinary times,” Dedhia said.

Instead, focus on what they can do to stay safe, such as washing their hands, wearing masks or avoiding touching their face or surfaces, experts agree.

Developing some routine and structuring in your day is also vital to your mental health, according to both Dedhia and Zucker.

Set aside time for schoolwork, but allow break time for exercise, play and relaxing, which become more important when children are feeling overwhelmed, Zucker said.

If you’re still having trouble finding an analogy that will work for your kids, there are a number of resources available to help, such as Manuela Molina’s illustrated COVIBOOK at mindheart.co/descargables or a National Public Radio comic at bit.ly/NPRCOVID.

Theodore Premako, 3, plays in a puddle along the South Fork River Trail near the Valencia South Valley neighborhood on March 23. Courtesy of Josh Premako

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