Kids these days. Sheesh.

Not only are they kids, but, like the rest of us, they now have to navigate a strange new world reeling with questions, fears and uncertainty surrounding a pandemic. They too are subject to debilitating loneliness, anxiety or depression, but without the experience, perspective and resources available to adults. How parents and guardians talk to their kids about the novel coronavirus can make all the difference in mental health.

Brigitte Bailey, M.D., training director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program and a clinical professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio, offers these tips for communicating with children in the time of COVID-19.

Brigitte Bailey, child and adolescent psychiatry
Brigitte Bailey, M.D., training director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program and a clinical professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio

Make them feel safe. Be open and honest. Invite your kids to talk about their feelings. Acknowledge that this is a scary time for everyone, including yourself. Sharing your feelings may make them more comfortable in sharing theirs. But share in moderation; kids are not adults, even if they are adult-sized. Listen. Give them your undivided attention. They should feel heard.

Give them facts. Ask your kids what they know about the coronavirus. It’s OK to admit you do not know something. Turn it into a lesson. “That’s a good question, let’s look that up.”

There are great resources available. Sesame Street resources, in videos, workshops, activities and articles, are for ages up to 6 years. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a link to great book, I Have a Question about Coronavirus, plus other valuable resources.

And there is the book My Hero is You, Storybook for Children on COVID-19 . It is free, available in several languages, targets ages 6 to 11 years, and has an audio book as well.

Keep it age appropriate. You know your kids the best. You can most always tell when your child, whether they are 5 or 15 years old, understands you by their expression. If they look like they do not get it, take a step back and try to rephrase what you are saying.

Give kids some responsibility/control. It is important that kids have a sense of control and know what they can do to help. The resources mentioned previously have printable charts, videos and stories on hand washing, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Learn what needs to be done as a family. Let the kids teach you and give them a sense of accomplishment.

Help them maintain a normal routine. Routine creates a sense of control. Let your kids help you with a schedule for the day. Set an awake time and a bedtime. Include schoolwork, breaks, meals, exercise, computer time, etc. Post the schedule so everyone knows what is happening and when. Also, have them put it on their electronic devices. This helps avoid those magical words, “I didn’t know.”

Try to make family activities part of the new routine. Use your kids’ computers and games to participate in fun exercise–dancing and sports. Find a good yoga program for the family to enjoy. Make exercise a family event. Enlist the kids to help you do all these things as a family.

Model the behavior you’d like to see. Exhibiting calm is vitally important. It provides a sense of being in control. Start the day with the relaxation technique of deep breathing exercises as a family. At the end of the day, have a family meeting to see how your kids are feeling. Follow this with more deep breathing exercises to settle everyone down for the night.

Limit computer time or TV time and news. Limit kids’ time spent watching news about COVID-19; it can be overwhelming, even for adults. And know that questions may arise about what they do hear.

Take care of yourself. It is easy to look after everyone else and overlook your needs. Take time for yourself, even if it is five minutes of quiet time. Focus on being present in the moment. Eat healthy and get good sleep.

Stay connected. Stay in contact with family and friends via phone calls or video gatherings. If you don’t know how to do this, don’t worry. Your kids do!


The Psychiatry and Behavioral Health practice of UT Health San Antonio is the largest psychiatry group in San Antonio that provides services for children, adolescents and adults.