Speaking to children about COVID-19


It isn’t business as usual, especially for children right now. But there are ways of navigating the “new normal” that we all find ourselves in, particularly so that children emerge from this experience with enhanced resilience.

Sumayyah Khan, a clinical psychologist specialising in child and adolescent therapy shares tips to enable parents to speak to kids about what is happening in their world in the context of COVID-19.

The first tip she shares is that parents should not hide anything from their children. When speaking to children, take your own feelings into consideration as well as theirs.

“Don’t be afraid to express your own feelings to your children, even those around your concerns and fears. They need to know that they are allowed to have those feelings, and this will allow them to feel brave enough to express their own fears,” she says.

A simple 4-step guide to talking children about their worries or fears:

  1. Validate: “Never invalidate their feelings by saying things like, ‘don’t be silly’ or ‘there’s nothing to worry about’ .”
  2. Respond when they are expressing these feelings by firstly, acknowledging those feelings. Say, ‘I understand you feel (scared or worried or confused),’ or ‘I can see/hear that you feel...’.
  3. Reassure: Then continue by providing some reassurance, without denying what is actually happening. For example, ‘It's okay to feel this way, we all feel this way sometimes’, or ‘It's scary to feel that we don't have control over what is going on.’ and  ‘I also feel this way’ .
  4. Reiterate. “End with the thought that you are always there for them. ‘Always remember that you can always talk to me/us about anything’ and ‘Your feelings are always important to share, so we can support each other.’”

She suggests limiting information and exposure to news, rather than taking in more. “If you manage your own anxiety in a healthy way, and are not being overwhelmed by information, then your children will feel able or safe enough to manage their anxiety and fears better as well.”

“Remember that your children feed off your energy, always be age-appropriately honest with them. You will earn their trust and respect, and they will know they can depend on you for the truth – but also for your reassurance.”

Dr Seranne Motilal, clinical specialist in mental wellbeing at Vitality adds that language and context at this time, are important. She adds these tips:

  • Avoid using language that encourages stigma or discrimination. When routine returns, this is not helpful for anyone.
  • Dilute the news. Children may not interpret or understand information in exactly the same way as adults do. As parents, you can find the balance between good enough information and reassurance that they are safe and contained. (Preparation, not panic!)
  • Children react and navigate their emotional distress in their own unique ways. This may mean that children respond immediately, or they may have a delayed response to crises or stress.  Understanding what your child needs in that moment is important. 
  • Try to avoid excessive blaming, even if  this may be our own way of coping. Stereotyping or excessive negative talk may increase a child’s anxiety.
  • Try to focus on elements that you can control, perhaps limiting discussions around elements that you cannot control.
  • Be mindful of the best form of communicating messages – some children respond better to images; others respond better to verbal or written notes (e.g. post-it reminders on the bathroom mirror)

“Ideally, setting aside one-on-one time with your child can help with all of this. There is more time for it right now. If work takes priority, children can easily feel ignored or unappreciated which can lead to negative behaviour. If you have to, scheduling daily one-on-one time with your child to make them feel loved and secure. Let them choose the activity and focus fully on them during this time,” she adds.

If you want to know even more then listen to the Discovery COVID-19 podcast series and learn all you need to know about supporting your children through the every impact that COVID-19 could have on their lives:

Understand how to help children through COVID-19-related stress

If you are a parent or if you care for children, then this podcast is for you! Professor Renata Schoeman shares brilliant tips on helping children to cope with the disruption brought to their lives by COVID-19 on all levels. Prof. Schoeman is a psychiatrist in private practice and co-founder of the Goldilocks and the Bear Foundation (which provides screening for early identification of children with ADHD, mental health and learning disorders). She is also head of the Healthcare Leadership MBA at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.

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