How to talk to children about the coronavirus pandemic

Sunday March 22 2020

Crisis: Since Covid-19 alias coronavirus,

Crisis: Since Covid-19 alias coronavirus, started making headlines at the beginning of the year, many things have changed, including shutting down schools. But how do you explain this to a child.  

The first time I heard a child talk about coronavirus was in my neighbourhood.

A little girl was narrating to her friends about how a teacher had directed them to keep away from buying chips for lunch, and to rather opt for healthier foods such as home cooked vegetables.

“Chips ziko na corona,” she said. The instruction may have also been meant to encourage them to avoid junk food which is common among students in the school, which is housed in an estate.

The incident, however, got me thinking about how kids are processing the news of the coronavirus. With three confirmed cases in the country, and a recent close down on schools, what are we telling the kids about this disease?

Don’t be afraid to talk about it
According to Dr Carol Chakua, a psychotherapist and parenting coach in Nairobi, parents should not be afraid to have a conversation with their children about Covid-19.

“It is important to talk about it because they look to us for direction and guidance, and the parent’s voice counts more than parents sometimes think. Let your voice rise above all the other noises,” she advices, noting that it is also important to deal with our own anxieties first.


“Children are highly attuned to their parents’ moods and they soak in their anxieties.”

Share bits of information at a time
While talking about the subject is a good idea, parents should be careful on how much information they share in one instance.

“Information overload can result to higher levels of stress for children. We need to stick to four or five key pieces of factual information,” states Dr Carol Chakua, the coach who also runs BEing Parenting, an experiential programme for parents.

Start by asking what they know
“For the very little children, say three years and below, the information may not have come to their space. We just need to step up on our encouraging them to exercise more hygiene,” the coach says.

However, she notes that the older children already know that something is not right.

“When they come to you with questions, start by asking them what they know so far. It is always good to start with what they have heard, that way it will be easier to correct and clarify any misinformation,” she says.

Minimise exposure to what’s happening
“Information overload is a source of stress and anxiety, and because we have no control over what people will report out there, we want to insulate our children against anything that might increase their levels of anxiety,” she adds.

Remain positive and focus on keeping safe
The coach advises parents to focus on how to keep safe by enforcing practices like washing hands with soap and water, use of hand sanitisers and covering mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

“It helps children understand that in times of crisis, they can forge on by focusing on what it takes to stay safe. They learn the important life skill of separating ‘what they are in control of’ from what is beyond their control. That way they learn that even in times of difficulties, they have the power to do something, and in this case, it is keeping themselves safe.”

Stick to routines
“Routines provide a sense of normalcy that is required for children to feel safe and know that their lives are going on. Children find safety in consistent routines, so if that can be maintained, it will lessen the levels of anxiety that they may be feeling,” she says, pointing out the importance of sticking to routines.

Update on some of the new developments
According to the coach, parents should filter the new developments they share with children.

“We need to filter what new developments are appropriate to share. For example, new cases of the virus are not necessary to share with children.

However, new developments in terms of what is being done to prevent spread; and to find a vaccine, would be great information to share.

Focus more on what is being done proactively to contain the pandemic, rather than on alarming developments,” she says, further advising parents to take care of their well being.”

She urges parents not to underestimate their own state of wellness.

“Find a place to talk about your concerns and anxieties. If feeling overwhelmed, seek help, not just for physical symptoms, but also for signs of stress. Look out for the single parent next door who has a busy work schedule. Look out for the neighbour who seems overwhelmed.”

She concludes that we should spread kindness and compassion, rather than judgment and criticism.

“This is the time to come together and support one another as a community. Let us share information that may be helpful to your neighbour and their family. Finally, as parents, use this as an opportunity to model how you want your children to handle uncertainties.”

This article was first published in the Daily Nation