Five tips for talking to young children about COVID-19 today

Many vaccinated adults have started going maskless, but most children still cannot. Some states are now fully open. Psychologist Caroline Watts offers parents language they can use to talk openly as a family about this newest phase of the pandemic.

A person in a face mask giving hand sanitizer to a child also wearing a face mask.

For the past 18 months, parents have been thrown a new wrench in communicating with their children: how to explain the details of and reasons for decisions around COVID-19, something they’ve probably had questions about themselves. 

“We know that our kids often respond based on how we respond,” says Caroline Watts, director of school and community engagement at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “Part of what’s been extremely challenging for parents is dealing with the impact of the pandemic on our own lives, our livelihoods, our day-to-day circumstances and managing how we feel.” 

Those emotions can complicate pandemic-related conversations with young children, particularly as the guidance constantly shifts. The most recent example—one that greatly affects the under-12 subset—relates to mask-wearing. 

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed it safe for fully vaccinated individuals to go maskless pretty much everywhere. Of course, no one younger than 12 can get a vaccine yet, meaning many families have some members who have gotten the shot, others who have not. Those in the latter group likely must continue to cover their faces. 

That practice may make sense to an adult, but to a 4-year-old it’s a different story. “This pandemic has turned everybody’s world upside down,” Watts says. “That is everyone, of every age, every social class, to different degrees. To help children understand it, it’s important to talk about what’s happening and then how we manage it.” 

Watts provides five tips for doing just that. 

Explain the vaccine situation in an easy-to-understand context 

Most children get vaccinated for diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella when they’re young, Watts says. “You can say, ‘Those shots you’ve gotten at the doctor have been tested for little kids, but the shot for COVID is still being tested for kids like you. It’s been determined that it’s safe for adults, so adults are getting vaccinated. That helps keep you safe.’” 

Talk openly about mask-wearing 

Some vaccinated adults with unvaccinated children may still choose to wear a mask. Others may not. The bottom line is that each family decides its own rules, and that can be confusing for young minds. Watts says, “Frame it under the umbrella of ‘protection against illness,’ using language like, ‘To prevent getting sick, the best things we can do are to keep physically distanced, wash our hands, and wear a mask. That’s true for COVID, a cold, or the flu.’”

Don’t criticize the choices another family makes, she says. “There’s so much negative rhetoric in general about health issues. I wouldn’t go into bashing another family,” she says. “Instead, I would say, ‘This is how we do things in our house. We think this is safest for you, and this is our family’s decision.’”

Use language your child uses 

As children process situations, they often come up with their own ways to describe what’s happening around them. Meet them where they are. For instance, if a child calls the pandemic “the corona,” ask her how the corona is making her feel and how the corona has changed her life this past year. Doing this makes it more likely that what you’re saying will get through, Watts says. 

And while discussing these subjects is important, don’t go overboard, she says. “Going on and on is not helpful. We become the parent in Charlie Brown that goes wah wah-wah wah-wah-wah. Make the case in simple, direct terms. Don’t repeat it over and over, but check in about why and how we’re doing things. Then when you see the behavior happening, praise it. There is nothing like praise and positive reinforcement.” 

Teach and reinforce altruism 

“In raising our kids, we want to balance their own sense of trust and security and safety, knowing they can rely on their caregivers to take care of them, but also we want them to be aware of the lives of others,” Watts says. This can start at a pretty young age, she says. She provides an example around wearing masks: “Say something like, ‘It’s very important to protect ourselves from germs that may be outside, but our masks protect others, too. You’re doing something for yourself, and you’re doing something for other people.’ That’s something we can teach from very early on and behavior we need to model.” 

Try finding a positive moment from within a greatly challenging period 

It’s possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will become a defining moment for many children. “Whatever you’ve been through, what have you learned that’s going to help you in the future? Maybe you’ve learned things you can do or things about yourself,” Watts says. “If we can’t come up with anything other than we got through this, that’s an accomplishment, too. We got through it, we’re still here, and we’ll keep going.” 

Caroline Watts is the director of school and community engagement at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.