Speaking to Our Children in Uncertain Times: How to Navigate Tough Conversations


Speaking to Our Children in Uncertain Times: How to Navigate Tough Conversations | Duluth Moms Blog

I think it is safe to say that we are all currently experiencing an overload of emotions and there is no doubt that our children are feeling our energy. The fear, uncertainty, and planning for what-ifs is a lot to sort out for us adults. COVID-19 has been a part of daily conversations in homes, offices, schools, stores, and pretty much everywhere else. That means that our children are hearing it and experiencing their own feelings about it. So how do we, as the adults in their lives, talk to them and help them organize these feelings? 

In my experience, our children are looking for us to be transparent with them. We can do this by having multiple age-appropriate conversations, answering all of their questions and giving them ways to help. 

Multiple Age-Appropriate Conversations

One way to visualize this is to imagine that you are putting together a large puzzle. You start to build the outline first to frame the “big picture”. You also likely work on it a little at a time each day. You often spend time adding pieces when you have quiet time to dedicate to it. Eventually the whole picture comes together. This is how I tackle complex topics and conversations with my children.

With the Coronavirus in particular, we started off conversations with our 4 year old by explaining why we keep asking her to wash her hands (even more than before). We chose to talk about it in the morning (during a quiet time) and we told her that there is a sickness that she will likely hear people talking about. We explained that if she gets sick that she will feel icky for a few days and we will take good care of her. We assured her by stating that kids aren’t getting really sick from this, but that older people (like her grandparents) are more at risk. We told her that by washing our hands, keeping our hands out of our mouths (especially since she is fond of eating her boogers), and covering our coughs & sneezes can help to protect them. We kept adding onto these conversations little-by-little each day. We helped her visualize how many things we touch in a day and how many other people touch those same things. We talked with her about how we will all be staying home a lot more, rather than going places.

I believe this can work with all ages of children. The goal is to complete the picture and that gets built over time with age (development level). If you have older children, you have likely already begun to build a foundation with them about things like the importance of hygiene and why we help others. For those with younger kids, I understand that it can feel simpler to not share this information. For instance, with our 2 year old, it’s a free for all just hoping to keep him excited about the songs he can sing while washing his hands.

Speaking to Our Children in Uncertain Times: How to Navigate Tough Conversations | Duluth Moms Blog

Answering their Questions

I once heard, “if they are old enough to ask the question, then they are old enough to have an answer”. When I ask a question, I would hate to have it be dismissed. It’s important to me that I respond to children in the same way. Also, they are very observant and smart, so they know when we are giving them sugar-coated answers (which are different than developmentally-appropriate answers).

One of the best ways that I have found to answer questions is with a question. When my child asks me what something means, I immediately say, “That’s a great question, what do you think?” This helps me determine a few things, like where they heard this thing or what is their current knowledge about it. This gives me a basis me to assess their developmental ability, which in turn, helps me choose an appropriate answer.

With our 4 year old, we offer to answer any questions that she has and we reiterate often that she can ask us anything she wants and we will always answer her questions. In relation to the Coronavirus, we have made it a priority to ask about what our child is hearing at school from teachers and other kids. With school-aged children at home right now, they may have access to media messaging. As adults, we know how hard it is to sort out what is true and how challenging it can be to calm our own fears.  So if our children are hearing this messaging, we can help them by asking if they have heard anything that they don’t understand or if they have any questions.

Also, leave the door open for conversations about questions that come into their mind at a later time. When asking children (and teens) questions, I have found that it tends to flow easier when they are a little preoccupied (in the car or playing a game with you). When our children feel heard, they learn that they can come to us with more questions later (no matter how big those questions feel). This is part of building the puzzle.

Speaking to Our Children in Uncertain Times: How to Navigate Tough Conversations | Duluth Moms Blog

Giving Them Ways to Help

We all like to feel as if we have some control, especially in unsettling times. For kids, one of their favorite things to do is help (especially when they are little). Helping allows them to feel empowered (aka giving them a sense of control).  It also helps keep them distracted, but in a productive way. We have already been asking them to help by washing their hands more and catching their coughs and sneezes in their elbows, but who will win the game of cleaning the most doorknobs? Have they already graduated from the “Germ Police Academy” or been inducted into the elite “Antibody Superhero Club”?

 As adults, we can not put the stress of these times on our children, but we can empower them to think of creative solutions. We can let them know why we are distancing ourselves from the people we love by explaining how it’s helping to keep those people safe. Ask them what ideas they have for helping us stay connected. Do they enjoy sending mail or having a video chat? Maybe they could keep your neighborhood connected by organizing a collective effort to leave chalk messages or put items in your windows for their friends to see when they are out on walks. 

We can show them what “flattening the curve” means by helping them visualize what hospital workers would be experiencing if we don’t (think of if there aren’t enough potties at a time when everyone needs to go). We, as parents, have been teaching them about sharing and about thinking of others since their earliest of days, so this foundation is hopefully already there.

For school-aged children, you can empower them by giving them a part in building and creating their learning plans. Ask them what their favorite projects were at school or how their teachers helped them understand things that felt hard. Allow them to choose new outside areas to explore and let them lead the “class” by talking about what they see and asking you (their students) questions.

For high school students (particularly seniors), they are experiencing an extreme crash course in disappointment. They are not used to living with so many restrictions and their friends are their whole life. To make matters worse, their hormones and self-absorbed nature are sky-rocketing their emotions. They are the population that we need to be most transparent with. They need us to help them understand what we can and cannot control. They also need us to allow them to feel their feelings (not dismiss them).

This is also the age group we can help empower the most. Can they take the lead to organize a virtual hangout (or online school support group) with their friends? When thinking about the long term, encourage them to brainstorm ways to help their community (they could also take ideas from the many positive ways people are already trying to help). Help them to think about what gifts they have to share with the world. They are the definition of hope for our future.

To say that there is a lot of daily messaging to sort through would be a monumental understatement. Be gentle with yourselves and remember that your child doesn’t need you to have all of the answers. They just need you to be with them in this.

Speaking to Our Children in Uncertain Times: How to Navigate Tough Conversations | Duluth Moms Blog

Below are some more resources to help you with your conversations:

Just For Kids: A Comic Exploring The New Coronavirus

#COVIBOOK -Supporting and reassuring children around the world

Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus

Parenting In the Age of Coronavirus, What Can Parents Do?


  1. Thanks Laura! You did a great job with this and am hopeful it will be a great resource to parents during this difficult time.

    • Thank you so much Erin for you kind words and for sharing it with others. That is also my hope.

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