Talking to Your Kids About Coronavirus (COVID-19) (Videos)

How to talk to kids about the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

It can be hard to know what to tell your children about the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Dr. Deneen Vojta, Chief Medical Officer at UnitedHealth Group, pediatrician and mom, offers help on what  to say to kids of all ages and how to be there for them during this time.

Helping children feel validated, reassured and in control

[Interview in office setting]

Talking to Your Children About COVID-19
Validate and Re-assure

[Ken Ehlert:] In your experiences, since you’ve been working this, you’re a pediatrician. You’re a parent. How would you respond to someone?

[Deneen Vojta:]

Well first of all, Ken, I'm not surprised that we got so many questions about how do I talk to my children and you know what do I say.  Because as they say, you're only as happy as your least happy child. So, I start by saying you really should validate their feelings.

It's irresponsible to say to children, “Don't worry about it.”

They clearly are worrying about it and you should be grateful that they're actually willing to bring it up to you because that's a big deal.

And start with reassurance. Reassure them that yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic, but that the doctors and scientists and the government are working 24-7 to find solutions, both in prevention and treatment and trying to stabilize the country. So, reassure them that that's all happening.

And then, actually give them some agency. Give them some control. Help them figure out what they can actually do to help the scientists and the government and the doctors and everybody else.

What’s their role? And once they do that, they'll realize that it can be simple things. For example, wash your hands.

So, if they understand clearly how important that is and how they as an individual citizen can actually help the epidemic by washing their hands, by coughing in their elbow and by doing their part.

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Managing anxiety in younger and older children

[Interview in office setting]

Talking to Your Children About COVID-19
Managing anxiety and social media

[Ken Ehlert:]

What does that anxiety look like?

And then, in particular, what does it look like when they're small versus what does it look like when they're a teenager?

[Deneen Vojta:]

Yeah, so let's start with anxiety. So, I would say one hundred percent but you never say a one hundred percent, but one hundred percent of people with ninety-nine-point nine percent of people including children are anxious during this period.

And it does look different. So, children, unlike adults, adults we have a vocabulary, we have experience, we have a tool box that we could pull from and we can, you know articulate how we're feeling.

Many children can't do this, particularly young children. So, you may see it expressed in anger in, you know, in moodiness, in inability to sleep, etc.

So, recognize those signs and whatever your child sort of natural inclinations, they’re probably magnified now. So, you know see that.

And my first piece of advice would be never strike while the iron is hot. So, acknowledge that they're having a reaction. If their anxiety is being manifested in some way, take a breath and step back.

And you know, a lot of this anxiety is actually being driven by the media. And so, really be careful and you know, make an effort to monitor their media and what they're watching.

And frankly, model good behavior in that regard. So, figure out what you’re watching because they’re watching everything you do. 

So, we've all been here where we stay strong and we may have our moments in the bathroom or in our private bedroom, but when we're with our children, stay as strong as you can, stay upbeat. Really turn the TV off or turn their access off to how much media, or maybe say we're going to do this twice a day. That's a little different than their social connections through social media.

And again, especially now that they’re feeling isolated. The last thing we want to do for a kid who was in school and had social media to all of the sudden say you have none of that now. That’s not going to work.

You can sort of help them acknowledge that if they’re online and it’s helpful with their friends, that’s great. And if it’s not, how do we take breaks from that?

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Staying calm for your children

[Interview in office setting]

Talking to Your Children About COVID-19
Being calm and truthful 

[Ken Ehlert:]

Say I've got a teenager which actually I do. I have a couple of those. And it's in Snapchat and a friend sends something over and it's a picture that they got from online and the grocery shelves are empty. And underneath it is the OMG, lots of exclamation points. What does this actually mean for us? What happens next for that child? They look at you and they say mom or dad or whoever, is this real?

How do we actually help go through that one? We say stay off, you just said don’t stay off, don’t take it away completely. Do I stay off of Snapchat altogether, your friends, they don’t know anything? But they do know something and they see it in the stores themselves. How do we deal with something like that?

[Deneen Vojta:]

I think that’s where, you know, children are smart. It might sound painfully obvious but don’t lie to them. You can couch what you’re going to say but don’t lie to children. And again, validate what they see. Remind them that also, that may be a particular grocery store at a particular point in time. We know though, that the government is very focused on keeping the grocery stores open. Here in Minnesota for example, grocery store workers were recently added to the emergency personnel list. That’s really critical. So, even when there’s a shutdown or a shelter-at-home, those groups are exempt which is good news. Kids are also funny. There’s a selfish side to most kids. You have some, I have some. We all know that, I guess we’re all a little selfish at times. They are thinking, “am I going to go hungry?” So, I know it sounds crazy but practical realities.

[Ken Ehlert:]

Or, “am I going to be the one in the bathroom when the toilet paper runs out?”

[Deneen Vojta:]

That’s right, that’s right. So, remind them to open your cabinets and say, right now, we have food. The grocery stores are open. We’re taking measures to prevent, if there was a shutdown for a day or two, you know pasta goes a long way for a long time.

But you know, keep it simple. Keep it truthful. And acknowledge what they saw. But also, you know, and maybe on the next trip to the grocery store, of course using safe distancing, etc. and they don’t actually have to touch anything, take them to the grocery store where they can see. Seeing is believing.

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Keeping your children on their schedules

[Interview in office setting]

Talking to Your Children About COVID-19
Encouraging reading and activity

[Ken Ehlert:]

How would we apply principles of resiliency to a situation like this?

Is this the right time to actually focus on resiliency? Or should we say that we should wait until the world's not in crisis?

[Deneen Vojta:]

Actually, resiliency is critical. What the nature of the adversity is often doesn't matter.

That being said, this is an extreme, at worst, time, and resiliency really is that notion of being able to bounce back.

And we all know people who bounce back really well and we know people who bounce back less well and children are no different.

So, I do think that there are some concrete strategies that will work regardless of your natural level of resiliency.

In such as, for example, reading. Read. Read. Read. Because when you read or you are being read to, your brain goes into a different mode and you're able to block out, whether you’re perseverating or you're worried, read, read, read.

For young children, you can read to them and interesting, with middle school and high school, particularly if they have younger siblings, you can actually have them take the role of being the reader.

But even to adults, having children read to you, I don't know if you did that in your house, but I was always amazed at how much my children enjoyed reading to me.

We did Harry Potter that way for years, frankly, because there are so many books and they would actually laugh at me sometimes and say, “Well, mom, you fell asleep after you know the first three pages of that chapter,” but they really took great pride in that and it really is distracting. Again, it gives them control and it's a good strategy to take your mind off your worries if you’re a natural worrier.

The next thing I’d say is activity. And I realize that a lot of people say you live in an apartment, you might not have as much room, but you can do dance-a-thons, you know, with your family. You can do push-ups. There a lot of activities or exercise, or you know keeping your body moving. We know that after 15 minutes of activity all the chemicals in your brain really start going into full action and you do feel better.

So, committing to reading, committing to staying active to the best of your ability, and even again in shelter-at-home, if you notice in the literature from the various states, you still have the right to go out for a walk, again practicing safe distancing, et cetera.

I mean, that’s really critical to keep as active as you can, obviously again, not in groups.

And lastly, I’d say is sleep. Sleep is really underrated sometimes. Sleep hygiene is everything. Keeping kids, particularly young children, to their schedule, keeping them going to bed and again just acknowledging that we're all in this together.

Going back to the reading comment, that bond, you know you already have a great bond because I'm your parent and you're my child, but it really does strengthen during the reading process.

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Communicating with adult children

[Interview in office setting]

Talking to Your Children About COVID-19
Helping adult children cope

[Ken Ehlert:]

Let’s just say that my child graduated high school in 2010 or graduated college in 2010, right after a financial crisis, and here we are 10 years later, and it’s crisis number two.

That child's not young anymore. They’re actually in the workforce and things like that. Do all the same principles apply?

Do I look at my 32-year-old child and recognize what would this type of a stress and crisis do to them and do these principles of resiliency and things like that. Do I actually have that conversation with them as well? Or if it’s me, if I'm 33-years-old and dealing with this, how would I actually engage in that?

[Deneen Vojta:]

You know resiliency is an issue for our whole lives and I think you actually brought up an interesting point.

You know, that generation or that age group in particular, they have seen a number of crises.

[Ken Ehlert:]

We both have some of those. (laughs)

[Deneen Vojta:]

Yes, we both have these children in our home.

And, I think communicate, communicate, communicate.

And sometimes, communicate means being quiet when we’re sitting together and wait for them to bring it up. They will.

They are worried, but also helping them again acknowledge what's going and acknowledge the impact it’s had on their lives.

They were in grad school and they’re back.

And then having an open communication about how we're going to deal with this new reality of having all of our adult children back in the home.

And simple strategies. So, for example, in our house, we have a medium-sized house, I’d say. And, you know, we've already talked about who gets what space when you need quiet time. You know, so somebody is taking the bedroom floor and somebody else has the living room and somebody else is going to the basement.  And that can rotate if people think one of those areas is better than the other one.

But just to acknowledge that sometimes you do need a little space and have that conversation. Have that conversation that when, you know, when you were all little, my new friends that are all back, I was the main cook. I think now that we’re all adults, let’s share that responsibility.

Because I have two sons and maybe they're not the best cooks, but I ate their food because I’m acknowledging their effort and I’m acknowledging, quite frankly, the pride they put into that. I make choke on that food, but they’re getting better.

But it really is important to also establish, and by actually saying I’m asking you now to take your turn in the cooking rotation. I’m also validating that you’re an adult now.  So, in that, I acknowledge that the rules are different.

I'm not going to treat you like a young child in my house any more.

[UnitedHealthcare logo displays at end of video]

Quick Video Overview of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Learn about the virus, the symptoms to look for and what you can to you don't get sick and to help keep others safe.  

[Gentle background music plays while text introductions appear on the screen]

COVID-19

What are Coronaviruses?

[Narrator:] Coronaviruses are a family of common viruses that can cause illness in both animals and people.

[Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)]

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome are two well-known coronaviruses.

In January of 2020, the World Health Organization announced a new coronavirus, now called COVID-19, which caused an outbreak of respiratory illness in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province.

We’re still learning about how this virus spreads, and rely on the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for guidance. 

Here’s what we know about COVID-19:
 

How does COVID-19 spread?

Currently, it is thought that it spreads mainly through respiratory droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person.

It may also spread when an individual touches an infected surface and then touches his or her mouth, nose or eyes. 

What are COVID-19 Symptoms?

COVID-19 symptoms may be similar to a respiratory infection.

Primary symptoms may include: fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Some people, the elderly or the immune-compromised, may experience complications including pneumonia and overwhelming infection, known as sepsis.

How to help protect against COVID-19.
To best protect yourself from this coronavirus:

Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, including your phone and computer.

Cover your nose and mouth with tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash immediately.

For updated information, guidance and travel alerts, visit the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

UnitedHealthcare will continue to actively monitor public health resources to ensure we respond appropriately to the needs of our customers and members.

Disclaimer: Source: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/ World Health Organization (WHO). https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

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