How to talk to kids about the pandemic as COVID cases soar: 'Try to answer them as honestly as possible without trying to hide things from them'

·6 min read
Upset small schoolgirl having trustful conversation with compassionate young mother, sitting together on sofa. Wise mommy comforting soothing little child daughter, overcoming problems at home.
Experts say it's important for parents to have honest, age-appropriate conversations with kids about the state of the pandemic (Photo: Getty Images).

The COVID-19 pandemic has been full of twists and turns, and now there's yet another one to deal with: the rise of the Omicron variant. This variant quickly spread around the world less than a month after it was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). It's now the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the U.S.

All of this change is a lot for even adults to take in. And, if you have kids at home, it's more than understandable to be unsure about how, exactly, to talk to them about all of the changes and unknowns linked with the latest developments in the pandemic.

While it's hard to be prepared for every question that may come your way, experts say it's a good idea to at least anticipate some of the biggies. You also don't necessarily want to wait for your child to approach you — it helps to be proactive, Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice-chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life.

"COVID and the way that we're responding to it impacts kids' lives in real-time," he says."We want to be talking to them and we also need to be doing it in a way that's developmentally responsible. What you say to a young kid is different from an older kid is different from a teenager."

You also want to make sure that they're getting reliable information from you vs. whatever they may hear from friends or anyone else. "There is so much information and misinformation out there. It's critical that kids know what information they should be listening to," Melissa Santos, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "Having opportunities set aside to talk to our kids about the pandemic, what they should know and what they are hearing, and allowing opportunities for them to share what their concerns are is invaluable."

Your child may have a range of concerns regarding the pandemic, but experts say these are some of the more important questions to be prepared to address.

When will the pandemic be over?

This is a hard question for even the top public health experts to answer. Admitting that there's no clear end date is important, Kleinman says. "This is a really hard question," Dr. Mark Daniel Hicar, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. "Most experts believe that, as we build up enough immunity in the population and with the way viruses naturally interact with humans, this will become similar to influenza, when we will have a season to worry about it and maybe booster vaccines on a yearly or every few year basis."

Santos says you can also simply tell your child this: "It's hard to say, but we know so much more today about how to stay safe during this pandemic."

What do the vaccines actually do?

Hicar recommends being sure to tell your child that vaccines won't give you COVID-19. Instead, explain to them that "vaccines show a bit of the infection to your immune system so your immune system can build up its defense to fight off the infection," he says.

Kids — and some adults — can get confused about how they can still get COVID-19 when they've been fully vaccinated, and that's also important to address. "The vaccines don't stop you from getting COVID," Santos recommends saying. "They work hard to stop you from getting really sick if you contract COVID."

Why do we have to wear a mask if we're vaccinated?

COVID-19 vaccines opened up to children aged five and up in November, and many were excited to mask up less frequently or not at all after being fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, the winter wave of COVID-19 cases and the fast spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant make that difficult.

Kleinman recommends saying that, "While the vaccine reduces the chance you'll get an infection and makes it less likely that you'll get very sick if you do get an infection, it doesn't completely prevention infection." Santos says it's also important to let children know that they're part of a greater effort to keep themselves and others safe. "It's how we do our part to keep ourselves and everyone else healthy," she says.

If we're all vaccinated, why are we at risk?

This requires a few layers of answers, Kleinman says. While the majority of eligible people in the country —65 percent — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, there is still a solid portion that is not vaccinated. "That's a problem," Kleinman says, noting that we're not yet at levels that will get us to herd immunity. And, given the risk of breakthrough infections with Omicron, there is still a risk that they or other family members could get sick.

"If everybody in your family is vaccinated and everybody with whom they interact is vaccinated and everybody with whom they interact with is vaccinated, then the risk of severe illness is pretty low," Kleinman says. "But that's unlikely." Hicar says that it's also important to talk to your child about how, even though the vaccine should prevent them from getting very sick if they get COVID-19, "even the best vaccines do not prevent 100 percent of disease in all persons."

Why do plans keep changing?

Whether it's the COVID-19 response, masking recommendations or even plans you make as a family, there are a lot of changes associated with living through a global pandemic. Santos suggests saying this: "Scientists are working really hard to learn all they can about COVID and, as they learn new information, we learn things we should be doing more of and things we should be doing less of. That's why you may see things changing."

If you have a child who is a worrier or seems anxious about the pandemic, Santos recommends hearing them out. "Allow kids to be able to express their fears without them feeling like they are wrong, but reassure them that everyone is working to keep them safe," she says. At the same time, Santos says, it's important for your child to see you modeling healthy behaviors on how to de-stress, like going for walks, doing yoga, or just generally trying to find time to unwind. "It may also be beneficial to incorporate into your child's schedule regular relaxation time or time for them to do things that allow them to decompress," Santos says. "That may vary for kids from getting outside to run around, doing belly breathing, writing, drawing or doing a puzzle."

When it comes to talking about COVID, Santos suggests you keep this in mind: "Keep the messaging short, factual and to the point." Then, if they seem satisfied with your conversation, move on. At the same time, Hicar stresses the importance of being honest. "They will hear all kinds of things from different sources, so try to answer them as honestly as possible without trying to hide things from them," he says.

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