How to talk to young people about coronavirus (Covid-19)

Whether you’re a parent, family member or Girlguiding volunteer, here are some tips to help you support young people during this uncertain time

19 March 2020

Events like the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic can be very difficult for young people to understand, and they may feel anxious and scared.

As the pandemic increasingly begins to affect their daily lives – with family members working from home, events and unit meetings being cancelled, being unable to visit vulnerable adults such as grandparents, and with potential school closures on the horizon – it’s important children have trusted adults to talk to and share their feelings with.

Whether you’re a parent, family member or Girlguiding volunteer, here are some tips to help you support young people during this time.

1. Help young people to understand that it’s a good thing to share their thoughts and feelings – without judging one another

Begin by telling them it’s okay to feel anxious, upset and scared. They don’t need to put on a brave face or bottle up their emotions. Explain that talking to trusted adults – like their parents, guiding unit leader or teachers – will help them understand how they’re feeling and that they’re not alone. 

Encourage them to listen to each other and not to judge or comment on how other people are reacting. Everyone experiences fear, worry and uncertainty in different ways – and that’s okay.

2. Stay calm and in control – and don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’

Children and young people will look to you for cues about how to respond so be mindful of not just what you say but also how you say it.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s best to be honest and say you – or scientists, doctors or the government – don’t know at the moment, but that everyone is doing everything they can to find out.

3. Remember to take young people’s feelings and views seriously

So they feel heard and respected.

4. Stick to the facts about the virus and debunk myths

The NHS has produced some simple guidance on the symptoms of coronavirus, who is most vulnerable and how to avoid catching or spreading it, as well as advice on how long to stay at home (self-isolate) if you have symptoms and when to contact the NHS 111 service for medical help. Familiarise yourself with this information so you are prepared to answer any questions children may have.

Explain that there are a lot of rumours and inaccurate information circulating about coronavirus, particularly on the internet and social media.

The World Health Organization’s Q&A is a reliable source of answers to a lot of frequently asked questions, while the BBC’s Reality Check team and organisations like Full Fact are working to halt the spread of fake health advice.

5. Offer reassurance and focus on the helpers

Remind children that most people who have contracted coronavirus haven’t got very sick (only the elderly, pregnant women and those with long-term health conditions are at a higher risk), and that most people who do get coronavirus will get better.

Emphasise to them that people can get ill from all kinds of germs so, if they or someone they know does get sick, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have coronavirus.

Tell them that, even if they or their loved ones do get coronavirus, everyone across the country is working together to make people better and stop vulnerable people getting it. It can be helpful to talk about the different kinds of trustworthy adults who are helping to keep people safe like parents, teachers, Girlguiding leaders, the government, doctors and scientists.

6. Teach young people practical steps they can take to protect themselves and others from coronavirus

They may feel helpless and out of control; doing something practical can help reduce these feelings while also empowering young people to reduce the spread of the virus.

The most important everyday things they can do is:

  • Stay away from people who are sick, coughing or sneezing. This is a good time to explain that the schools may need to close and address their concerns about everyday group events like guiding unit meetings being cancelled.
  • Tell an adult if they don’t feel well. Stay at home and self-isolate if necessary.
  • Learn to wash their hands properly. Teach children to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water (or hand sanitiser containing 60% alcohol if soap and water are unavailable) for 20 seconds, particularly after coughing, sneezing, blowing their nose, going to the bathroom or eating/preparing food.
  • Cough or sneeze into their elbow, or into a tissue and dispose of it straight away.
  • Don’t touch their mouths, nose and eyes. This will help keep germs out of their body.
  • Keep surroundings clean. Ask for older children’s help keeping the shared things we touch most often round the house or at school clean, such as doorknobs, light switches, tablets and computers, stationary, cutlery, desks and remote controls.

You may also want to recommend that young people try to cut down on their screen time and avoid reading too much about the virus; this could prevent obsessive compulsive behaviour and decrease anxiety.

7. Keep a sense of normality

After you have talked and shared your feelings, and are certain they are feeling okay, try to keep things as normal as possible; maintaining familiarity and routine can help children deal with stress. Emphasise that measures such as self-isolation or school closures are only temporary.

As a parent, resist the urge to buy face masks (unless you or someone you care for is ill) or stockpile food or toilet paper because this will signal to your child that something is wrong and only heighten their anxiety.

8. Signpost young people to relevant resources

If a young person you know has very severe worries about coronavirus, you should signpost them to counselling or other professional services. As well as local organisations you are aware of, a list of potential organisations can be found on our page of support organisations.

For younger children, the BBC’s Newsround coverage is a good source of accurate, reassuring and age-appropriate guidance on coronavirus.

You could also try our Kill the germs! activity from the First Aid skills builder, designed for girls as young as five years old, which is a fun way to show girls the importance of good hygiene. 

The NHS has also created this super-catchy song to teach younger kids the proper hand-washing technique:

The Mix and Young Minds have both produced excellent guides to the coronavirus pandemic aimed at teenagers, while Mind offers advice on safeguarding your mental health and wellbeing while self-isolating, whatever your age.