When we woke up this morning to the news that President Donald Trump and his wife Melania had tested positive for COVID-19 and that the President was showing symptoms, my husband and I had a range of reactions—but one of the first ones was, “Should we tell our kid?”
Our daughter was headed to in-person school as part of her school’s hybrid learning plan, and we wanted to explain the news in age-appropriate terms and answer any questions she might have before she heard a confusing whiff of the story from someone else. So, after a quick adults-only conference about how to put it, we let her know that the President and First Lady were both sick with COVID.
Not every family wants or needs to have a Big Conversation About National News first thing in the morning, and that’s totally understandable. You know your child best. But the decision to talk about the news with our daughter actually turned into a great discussion over breakfast, about the need for empathy when someone is ill and, importantly, how all of us, from the White House to the schoolhouse, need to keep doing our part to stop the spread of coronavirus by wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.
Here’s what experts say about explaining complicated news to kids—even when your own response is complicated, or you don’t have all the details.
Take the lead
It’s better for complex news to come straight from a trusted adult than for children to hear about it second-hand or in a potentially confusing way, whether from other kids at school, or by simply overhearing you talking about it with other adults in your life.
“Chances are good that your child will overhear someone (maybe even you) talking about this, and will have questions,” says Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist in family practice. “They will either keep their questions to themselves, having understood the implicit message that they are not supposed to know this information, or will come to you with their curiosity. Either way, the burden becomes theirs to carry.”
When something’s obviously going down, the burden of figuring out what’s happening—what are all the grownups texting and talking about?—can produce unnecessary stress and confusion for kids. That’s why experts suggest getting out in front of tricky news to help frame it up for them, before someone else (who might not understand your child as well as you do) beats you to it.
“Few things are more confusing for children than having a parent lie,” Hershberg notes, even if it doesn’t seem likely that they might find out. Being honest helps children understand that even when things seem confusing or strange, you are there to help them: “The message needs to be that we—as parents, as human beings—can handle big feelings. And so can they.”
Keep it simple and age-appropriate
Kids absorb information differently as they age, and you know your child’s personality best. It’s just as appropriate and “normal” for a preschooler to shrug off a potentially-confusing subject (even if they show signs of anxiety later) as it is for a tween to have tons of questions. Not sure where to start? Use this guide to discussing tricky topics age by age, from toddlers to teenagers.
Don’t wait until you have all the answers
Especially when we know that things might change at any moment, it’s tempting to wait to talk about confusing or complicated topics with kids—to punt it down the road until we feel “ready” or until we know all there is to know.
“But the idea that we need to have all our ducks in a row in order to begin conversations with our kids is a misconception,” says Hershberg, who stresses that it’s okay to be upfront about not knowing all the answers, as long as you are calm, confident and reassuring in your conversation. “There is what you say, and then there is how you say it; the distinction is essential. When we speak with our children about uncertainty, it’s the way we phrase things—our tone of voice, our body language—that is most important.”
Encourage empathy and responsible actions
During times when the news cycle has been a lot this year, it has been helpful to focus on the things that we as a family can do to be empathetic, responsible and resilient. This morning our daughter put it well: “I don’t like Trump but I hope he gets better. And I hope everybody wears masks now.”
No one would wish a serious illness on another person, regardless of whether you agree with them 100%. And if one of the positive consequences of the news of the Trumps’ illness is that we fight through our collective pandemic fatigue to face this disease head-on, and our nation comes together to do our part to stop the spread, that’s one step toward a positive change.