Local child mental health expert gives advice on talking to kids about COVID-19

Annmarie Arensberg, licensed specialist clinical social worker, said it is especially important to have conversations about COVID-19 with teens who might be taking in overwhelming or scary content about the pandemic on social media. Photo credit Mitchel Haindfield. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Communicating COVID-19 information in a simple and easy to understand manner and reaching out to teens who may may be consuming overwhelming information on social media are among the tips KVC Hospitals Director of Clinical Operations Annmarie Arensberg has for talking to kids about the pandemic.

“I think it’s important to have those open and honest conversations as a parent and as a family to ensure that your child is getting accurate information and that they’re not reading things that might scare them or might overwhelm them,” Arensberg said.

Arensberg said it might be helpful for families to designate times to discuss the pandemic, such as at the dinner table or on family walks.

Parents, grandparents and caregivers alike can initiate conversations about the pandemic to make kids more comfortable to ask questions and share their concerns, said Arensberg, a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed specialist clinical social worker. Kids of all ages may have questions about how reopening plans may impact their family, along with general questions about COVID-19.

To help parents tackle these conversations, Arensberg created a list of tips and strategies adults can use when discussing the pandemic with children. She suggests adults begin by asking children what they’ve heard about the coronavirus so that any misinformation can be corrected. Children will feel in control when given examples as to how they can combat the virus, such as washing their hands and social distancing, she said — topics that a local artist covered in his COVID-19 coloring book.

Additionally, it’s important to keep the information simple and easy to understand — with limited details — to avoid overwhelming children, she said. Below are some specific tips, as outline by Arensberg:

  • Give children space to share their fears and concerns, and assure them it’s okay to have those feelings.
  • Speak calmly to help children feel that their environment is safe, even when talking about a potentially scary subject.
  • Keep a regular schedule, socialize within the household and stay virtually connected to friends and others outside the household so children do not feel isolated.
  • Help children understand how the coronavirus spreads, and ways to keep it from spreading like covering one’s mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing.

As the state progresses through its reopening plan, Arensberg said the dialogue will vary from family to family depending on whether parents will continue to work from home, or are preparing to head back out for work – which she said can create fear and anxiety for some people, especially those who have been sheltering in place over the last several weeks.

“I think having a clear plan as a family is really important,” Arensberg said.

Further tips on how to talk to children about the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. Another KVC resource is how grandparents can support their grandchildren amid COVID-19, which can be found here.

KVC is a children’s psychiatric nonprofit with locations in Missouri and Kansas, including Olathe, Kansas.