Talking coronavirus with children need not be scary proposition for parents

The coronavirus can be a scary topic for some adults, but children often also pick up on the anxiety and fears of their parents, so how does a mother or father talk to kids about COVID-19?

Northern Pines Mental Health Center in west Brainerd offeres counseling services for children. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Paige Welle knows discussing the fear, uncertainty and anxiety associated with the coronavirus can be a frightening prospect for some parents.

The outpatient therapist with Nystrom & Associates Ltd. in Baxter should know as a mother of two and as a licensed professional clinical counselor who now is treating patients by phone.

“There’s so much uncertainty and unknown,” Welle said Thursday, March 26. “And we, humans, do not like not knowing the answers to things, so it will naturally create some worry and nervousness in people. … Children will pick up on adults’ and parents’ anxiety and stress.”

Holley Simonson is a licensed psychologist with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in the Brainerd lakes area with grandchildren of her own.

“It’s very definitely a scary topic, I think, for both children and adults,” Simonson said.


COVID-19 is the potentially fatal respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that first emerged in China in 2019.

Holley Simonson is a licensed psychologist with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in the Brainerd lakes area. Submitted photo / Holley Simonson

“And I think that, you know, right now part of the challenge is that we know that it’s lethal and we know that it’s a real threat,” Simonson said.

Minnesota recorded its second death from COVID-19 Thursday. The person was a resident of Ramsey County in his or her 80s, according to Minnesota Department of Health officials.

Welle said of her sons, “They’re concerned about their grandparents because they can hear from others and on the news that the older population or people with underlying medical conditions (are at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19).”

“... If we want to help our children build resilience, we also need to model that for them. So keeping our own anxiety and stress in check ... making sure we’re engaging with our support system is going to be very important to create that environment for children.”

Coronavirus concerns

There were almost 350 cases of COVID-19 reported in the state as of Thursday, and 41 of those cases required hospitalization, according to Minnesota Department of Health officials.


“We want to make sure why we’re giving age-appropriate, fact-based information, again, based on the development and maturity of the child is because children know a lot more that's going on that I think sometimes we give them credit for,” Welle said.

Simonson said, “We, as adults, don’t have great answers right now either. And we’re kind of apprehensive at times about things and so I think that makes us kind of shy away, maybe not talk to them, but I think we do need to talk to them.”

Simonson said children will often seek out information on their own, which is more readily available than it has ever been, so it is important for parents to provide context as well as limits.

“First and foremost, we want to make sure that we’re minding our input, which is social media. And — because we are trying to stay up to date — just be mindful of what is on in the home because children will overhear things on cell phones or things on the TV,” Welle said.

Paige Welle is an outpatient therapist with Nystrom & Associates in Baxter. Submitted photo / Nystrom & Associates

Welle suggests parents with young children ask often how they are feeling, especially about what developments regarding the pandemic they may have heard and whether that information causes the child to feel, for example, worried, angry, sad or other negative emotions.

“We also want to make sure that if children are overhearing conversations adults are having they are told they may ask questions — respond with a lot of validation, a lot of reassurance and give them the facts based on their age and developmental level that’s appropriate,” Welle said.


Simonson added, “Knowing that kids are going to react to both what we say, so the information we give them, as well as how we communicate that information, we have to make sure that we’re being positive and strength based.”

Gov. Tim Walz further attempted to limit social activity and slow the spread of the coronavirus Wednesday by ordering residents to stay inside their homes and not leave unless necessary, an order that goes into effect 11:59 p.m. Friday.

“With social distancing, there’s a lot of things that we’re missing out on, and so this is a good time for us to really talk openly with our children about the disappointment we may feel and then how they’re handling it, so we can help them build some resilience during this time,” Welle said.

Schools will remain shuttered until May 4 and are set to begin distance learning March 30.

“Children are social creatures — we’re all social creatures — but, you know, children are pack animals, and so you know they exist within their groups, and so the loss of that social context for them is huge,” Simonson said.

Forestview Middle School students picked up Chromebooks last week to use at home to make distance learning possible. High school students all already have their own Chromebooks.

“I had a session this morning with a young man who was just expressing concerns that school is not easy for him when he’s face to face with a teacher, and he’s really worried about, ‘Can I even do this now?’” Simonson said. “He has a mental health challenge, but his depression was much worse when I checked in with him today than it was previously.”

Talking to children

“We’re seeing some kids right now or expressing pretty significant anger in response to the losses that they’re experiencing right now, especially seniors. They’re talking about, you know, ‘I’m not going to have another prom. I might not be able to walk for graduation,’” Simonson said. “It’s important as adults to support them, that we understand even though to us the loss of a prom may not be the end of the world, that is the world to these kids, so we need to be validating their feelings and helping them see that, yes, that is a loss, but there’s more out there.”


Simonson said she works primarily with children and adolescents, and her caseload is primarily dealing with those experiencing trauma.

“We’re working with our kids on how can you connect and be connected to people in a safe way right now, so things like we’re telling our kids to do … take a walk together on the phone, so you FaceTime your friend,” Simonson said.

Adults not working due to the governor’s orders related to closures of certain businesses will probably find themselves with more time to spend with their children. But parents may be preoccupied with making ends meet until the stay-at-home order expires.

More than 149,000 new unemployment applications were filed in Minnesota from March 16-23, almost 10 times the amount that was filed in all of February combined. The increase is attributed to an earlier executive order from Walz that forced a wide range of closures for businesses.

“We had families that were feeling stressed and (there was a) lack of resources before this happened and so now we have an exacerbation of that underlying stress,” Welle said.

Simonson said, “We really need to be helping people switch to an attitude of gratitude and really looking at what’s good … because what we look for we will see. I think it’s really important that we keep our focus on the things that are good that are still around us.”

General principles for talking to children

  • Remain calm and reassuring. Remember, children will react to both what is said and how it’s said. They will pick up cues from conversations with them and with others.

  • Be available to listen and to talk. Be sure children know they can come when they have questions.

  • Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma. Remember, viruses can make anyone sick, regardless of a person’s race or ethnicity. Avoid making assumptions about who might have COVID-19.

  • Pay attention to what children see or hear on television, radio or online. Consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on COVID-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety.

  • Provide honest and accurate information appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Talk to children about how some stories on COVID-19 on the internet and social media may be based on rumors and inaccurate information.

  • Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs. Remind children to stay away from people who are coughing, sneezing or sick. Remind them to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow, then throw the tissue into the trash. Get children into a handwashing habit. Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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