Why we should talk to children about COVID-19

It is our responsibility to address the fears and worries of children

Opinion by Maniza Zaman
Parent talking to children about COVID-19
19 April 2020

This article first appeared in The Daily Nation on April 17, 2020.

In Kenya, it has now been a month since the first case of COVID-19 was detected. The measures instituted in the country are impacting everybody’s daily lives. We are all trying to cope and adjust. The disease is impacting families, communities, the health care system, livelihoods and the economy. Many adults are feeling anxious, confused, worried and/or overwhelmed by the speed and reach of the events. The same is true of children, and it is our responsibility to address their fears and worries.

As a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to talk about difficult issues like this with children. But although it can be challenging, it’s important that parents do talk to their children, especially as there is so much information (and misinformation) already out there. Children might find it difficult to understand what they see on TV, hear on the radio and/or from their friends. And they can easily fall prey to untruths.

So what can parents do? First, familiarize yourself with the correct information to help inform and protect your children. The Ministry of Health, World Health Organization and UNICEF are all great sources of online information. If you don’t have internet access, listen to the official government messages on the radio.

Next, invite your child to talk about the issue. Use “open ended” questions. Find out how much they already know. If they’re very young and haven’t already heard about the outbreak, you may not need to raise the issue. Just remind them about good hygiene practices.

Make sure you are in a safe environment and allow your child to talk freely. Drawing, stories and other playful activities may help them to open up. Be sure to acknowledge their feelings and assure them that it’s natural to feel scared and/or worried about these things. Be honest and explain the truth in a simple manner that children can relate to. Watch their reactions and be sensitive to their level of concern.

Show your children how to protect themselves and their friends. One of the best ways to keep safe from COVID-19 is to encourage regular handwashing with soap. If soap and water are not available, the right alcogels can be used. You can sing or dance as you wash hands with younger children, to make it more fun. Show them how to cover their cough or sneeze with their elbow. Explain that it’s best not to get too close to people who have those symptoms.

If there’s an outbreak in your area, remind your children that they’re not likely to catch the disease if they follow these hygiene and distancing practices. Explain that many people who have COVID-19 don’t get very sick, and that lots of adults are working hard to keep your family safe.

Check if your children are either experiencing or spreading stigma. Explain that COVID-19 has nothing to do with what someone looks like, where they are from or what language they speak. Remind them that bullying is always wrong and that we should each do our part by being kind to each other. Tell them that you care and that they can talk to you about COVID-19, or anything else that is worrying them, at any time.

You can help your children cope by finding opportunities for them to play and relax. Keep regular routines and schedules as much as possible.

Lastly, take care of yourself. You’ll be able to help your children better if you’re coping well, too. Children will pick up on your own mental state, so it helps them to know you’re calm and in control. If you’re feeling anxious, reach out to family, friends or people you trust in your community.

During this unprecedented global crisis, it is vital that we take special care of children. UNICEF is supporting the Government as part of the UN’s COVID-19 response in Kenya. We’re providing supplies such as portable hand-washing stations, knapsack disinfectant sprayers, thousands of bars of soap and surgical masks. We are working with partners to help keep essential health services going, provide continued learning for children, and intensifying efforts to keep children safe. And we’re providing important information for parents on the free online platform Internet of Good Things: ke.goodinternet.org

COVID-19 is changing Kenya and the world at a bewildering speed. At this time, it’s more important than ever to take care of the most vulnerable members of society, including children. Having open, supportive discussions with your children is one way to help them understand and cope better with this new world we find ourselves in.

As part of the United Nations in Kenya, UNICEF stands in solidarity with the Government and people of Kenya. Together, we will get through this difficult period, and continue to support and protect children.

By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative in Kenya.