Sofia Pierce of Carmel, Indiana, won’t be shy about telling you all the things she knows. After all, at seven years old, she knows a lot. But when she learned that even presidents can get sick, her mind was blown. “Why does Donald Trump have the coronavirus?” she asked her parents in amazement.
Even though her parents, Jon and Tamra Pierce, both work in the medical field and could answer questions scientifically, that’s not exactly what Sofia was asking about. It was more about the uncertainty of what would happen, especially when it came to someone she “knew.”
“Younger kids think that their parents and people of power are indestructible, or that they’re more constant in the world than they truly are,” says Jill Ehrenreich-May, a psychology professor at the University of Miami.
Pre-pandemic, most kids had a general awareness of illness that usually wasn’t too scary. It most often came with a few sniffles and left with no more impact than a couple of missed school days. In fact, the relationship between illness and consequences for children can be vague. For example, Ehrenreich-May says kids might assume a serious disease happens only to the one person who they know has that disease, or that the exact same thing happens to anyone who becomes ill. She adds that children in this age group also struggle to grasp that illness can strike almost anyone.
As the world continues to deal with a pandemic that’s infected nearly 7.5 million people in the United States, kids are likely aware of COVID-19, what the symptoms are, and how they can protect themselves and others. But they might not fully comprehend the meaning or consequences of the virus until someone they know becomes infected—and that might include famous people.
According to Lindsay Malloy, associate professor of psychology at Ontario Tech University, a celebrity might be a child’s first experience of hearing about someone who’s actually sick, whether it’s the president of the United States or Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman, who recently died of colon cancer. “When a major figure who a lot of kids know of becomes ill, that’s going to hit closer to home,” says Malloy, also co-founder of Pandemic Parenting. “This is someone they ‘know,’ and for some, a celebrity is going to be their closest experience to an illness.”
That sense of connection, Malloy says, might cause some children to ask questions about illness in ways they haven’t before. Suddenly, she says, illness isn’t just something that happens to other people—it feels realistically close to home. “They start to wonder, if this can happen to Black Panther, can this happen to me?” she says.
Grown-ups and famous people can get sick too
Though a high-profile diagnosis be jarring for kids, Malloy says it offers an opening to talk about the illness and its consequences. “It can be a good opportunity to discuss why we’re taking certain steps,” she says. “’This is why we are wearing masks,’ or ‘This is why we’re not visiting Grandma and Grandpa right now.’”
Whether you bring it up depends on the child. In all likelihood, they’re hearing about illness anyway. “When the president has COVID-19, it’s fair to say that it’s being discussed in kids’ peer groups, at school, in media exposure,” Malloy says. “I think parents should at least have a conversation regardless of whether their kids are asking questions.”
Malloy says children usually open up best when they feel safe to ask questions. That could mean talking to them in a private space, away from teasing siblings. “Express your availability to your kids. Let them know you are there to talk,” she says. Then let your child lead the conversation. “Don’t tell them they’re sad or scared, or ask leading questions like, ‘You’ve been anxious about this, right?’ Give them a chance to express how they’re feeling.”
Some kids might need an explanation that all humans—even grown-ups and famous people—can get sick. ”I would be straightforward about it in an age-appropriate way that provides reassurance,” Malloy says. For instance, parents can tell children facts about COVID while also sharing that most people do recover. (Here’s an article about talking to your children about COVID-19.)
For questions like, “Will this illness happen to me or someone I love?” Malloy says it’s important to answer children honestly and straightforward, but in a way your child can handle. “For instance, kids can be told it’s a serious illness [that can affect anyone], but they might not need to know the statistics,” she says, adding that this type of question offers more opportunities for parents to reassure the child that they’re following the rules to keep everyone safe.
As for the big question no parent wants to tackle? “If the illness might lead to death, that’s really hard to talk about,” Malloy says. But honesty remains crucial, even if you’re giving children only the information they need. For instance, instead of focusing soley on the potential negative outcomes, parents can also steer the conversation toward comforting topics. “Parents can be reassuring about all the steps that they and everyone else around them are taking to keep everyone safe,” she adds.
And though it might be tempting to simply tell children that everything will be OK, Ehrenreich-May says that’s usually just a temporary solution that will likely cause kids more stress over time, especially once they learn the truth. “Instead,” she says, “focus on translating a child’s worries into something empowering, like what can they can do for themselves and other people.”
Giving kids back a sense of control
Empowering kids to take control while providing stability is one way parents can help children deal with emotions they might be feeling when someone they know becomes ill. “One of the hardest parts about illness is the lack of control,” Malloy says.
And yes, it all goes back to that routine. “Have a regular bedtime, regular meal times, a daily schedule they can stick to,” Malloy says. “If life has been turned upside down in some ways, children can take comfort in the familiarity of routines they’re used to, which helps them cope with stressful situations.”
She also recommends that parents give children choices, which increases their sense of control. If they’re learning from home, let them choose the order of what they’ll work on each day. If they’re wearing masks at school, let them pick out their favorite patterns.
But above all, Malloy advises that parents remember how resilient children are, even as they cope with illness. “Most kids are going to end up being fine,” she says. “The most important thing for kids who are adjusting is having loving, close, and secure relationships they can count on.”