Guide to talking to children about COVID-19

27 MARCH 2020

Plan International Australia has launched a guide to help parents and carers navigate difficult conversations with children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ‘How to Help Children Cope with the COVID-19 Pandemic’ guide, co-authored by psychologist and child anxiety specialist Karen Young, offers parents and carers simple tips on how to support children who may be distressed by the sudden changes to our daily lives and the constant news cycle.

Plan International Australia has drawn on many decades of experience delivering hygiene and sanitation programs abroad to provide illustrated hand washing steps for children in the guide, as well as important advice on educating children about how they can play a role in stopping the spread of the virus.

How to keep children engaged, happy and learning

The guide also includes valuable resources on how to keep children engaged, happy and learning whilst we are confined to our homes and minimising contact with our communities and loved ones.

Research from the Australian Catholic University has shown that between 7% and 45% of children suffer depression, anxiety or distress after experiencing a natural disaster or crisis.

Plan International Australia CEO, Susanne Legena, said children are witnessing one of the most challenging and significant events of a generation.

“By now, children will have heard about the virus; they may have family members who have been quarantined after returning from international travel, or they might even know someone who is sick. Children may be feeling overwhelmed, sad and stressed, so it’s critical in a time like this to ensure they feel protected and comforted,” she said.

Psychological impact on children

“Thankfully, from a health perspective children do appear to be less impacted by the virus than adults, nonetheless we are worried about the psychological impact this could have on children. COVID-19 will no doubt have a profound impact on the environment in which our children grow and develop.”

Children may be feeling overwhelmed, sad and stressed. It’s critical to ensure they feel protected and comforted.

“What’s more, the challenges for children, particularly girls, ranging from disruption in education, increased risk of sexual violence and mental health risks, will be much greater in lower-income countries. Right now, our work to make sure that all children thrive and that no one, especially girls, is left behind, has never been more important.”

Drawing on our experience of responding to medical emergencies such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Plan International’s response to COVID-19 will focus on working with communities, national governments and partners to tackle the spread of COVID-19 through dissemination of public health information, promotion of best hygiene practices, including installation of hand washing facilities and intensifying preventive measures in refugee and displaced camps.

Experts in child protection

“After 80 years of working with children in vulnerable communities, we have learned that kids are better able to comprehend uncertain times such as this when they feel comforted and reassured of their safety and when they know they are not alone in their feelings,” Ms Legena said.

“We have also learnt that parents and carers are often the best people to alleviate anxieties in children and we encourage them to have open, supportive discussions to help children cope. It can be hard to know where to start, and that’s why our experts in child protection have created this guide.” she added.

Psychologist Karen Young said the COVID-19 health crisis could fuel anxiety, distress and even depression in young people and that it is critical that parents acknowledged their feelings and provided reassurance.

“Children might respond in many different ways to news of COVID-19. They might feel scared, sad, confused or they might feel nothing at all. Let them know they aren’t alone, and that whatever they are feeling is completely understandable.” Dr Young said.

The guide offers practical steps to approach these conversations with young people.