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How can we explain Covid to our four year old without frightening him?

My husband and I wondered if you have any advice on how we can explain what is happening with COVID-19 to our 4 year old without frightening him? He has started asking more questions about why we can’t visit grandparents and his cousins.

As the parent of older children, it is easy for me to explain the nature of a pandemic, the restrictions and the science that can get us out of lockdown to my tween and teen. However, being the parent of a curious young child at the moment is a tough gig. Happily, there are snippets of good quality advice contained in both the literature on anxiety and available books that can help to scaffold conversations with your young son. 

Some general advice first. At the moment, we firstly need to focus on the anchors in their lives. Reminding children of all the things that are different can be anxiety-inducing. Instead, let’s remind them of all the things that are staying the same. At home, keep things stable, consistent and steeped in routine. 

If he asks questions, reply with positive affirmation. “That is a great question, I like it when you ask questions!”. Quash nothing. If he asks specifically about why he can’t see his grandparents and cousins, you might reply in age-appropriate language, using age-appropriate metaphors. For example, there is a virus called Corona which is playing hide and seek with us and for a little period of time, we need to hide from it. Superhero scientists are trying to track it down and capture it first and, until they do, we are playing hide and seek from it too. It is like a giant treasure hunt. We can help all the superheroes by washing our hands, wearing masks (as adults) and talking to Granny and Grandpa on Zoom for a little while longer. The tone should be positive and affirming but also hopeful. If he is particularly interested in the virus itself, there is a growing market in helpful ‘explainer’ resources: videos by Nanogirl or books such as ‘The Lonely Fox by Beal, ‘Coronavirus: a book for kids by Margolin, ‘The World Made a Rainbow by Michelle Robinson and ‘Why We Can’t Hug by Eoin McLaughlin. It is always a good idea to read or view before sharing with your particular child and you may choose to pick out little bits from these materials, which you know are suited to your child’s level of maturity. 

Ensure that your child doesn’t overhear conversations about the virus, death tolls and how desperate you are to see one another again. Keep chats with grandparents bright and breezy when in earshot of your son. Schedule new, fun time with grandparents over Zoom – perhaps they could commit to a storytime with your son once a week? Encourage your son to communicate with them using other formats, such as sending postcards, talking on the phone, sending video clips of each other having fun and laughing. 

Optimism tends to ignite resilience. It can be helpful to plan all the lovely things we want to do with our grandparents and cousins as soon as we can. 

During this particular time, amplify your child’s access to play. Do watch the video on the importance of children’s play within the Tooled Up library and listen to the podcast with Dr Helen Dodd, a leading expert on play and anxiety.

Anxiety researchers such as Helen Dodd from all over the country are highlighting some key tips to help the parents of children in the early years (Emerging Minds, 2020). Their advice is to invest in self-care at this time – the stronger and more positive you can feel, the better. They suggest focussing on healthy routines, maintaining boundaries at home, being consistent in your responses and valuing outdoor activity. They advise prioritising a lot of free play for your child and to encourage drawing and the expression of feelings (which can occur through play or simply through little chats on walks). They suggest that we acknowledge our children’s emotions; “I can see you are a little bit disappointed we can’t see grandpa today, I am a little bit disappointed too.” Disappointment is understandable and ok, but remaining positive, proactive and forward-thinking is important. The latter is easier said than done, but worth it as a means of ring-fencing your child’s wellbeing and happiness during this most challenging of times.