You spent the last 18 months obsessively telling your kids to wash their hands, wear their masks and cover their mouths when they cough. And your children aren’t idiots—they’ve seen you watching the news and overheard you talking to other parents about COVID-19. Not to mention the multiple antigen and PCR tests they’ve had to take recently. In other words, your kids may not know exactly what’s going on, but they definitely know that there’s a virus out there called COVID and it’s something you don’t want to get.
But, after more than a year of telling your child that it’s basically the worst thing ever, you could still find yourself in the tricky position of having to inform them that they’ve tested positive. First of all: Deep breaths—you will get through this. Secondly, how the heck are you supposed to relay this news? We tapped a psychiatrist and family physician for their advice on how to talk to your child about what’s going on (without totally freaking them out).
“Being told they have tested positive for COVID can at first be shocking,” says Dr. Mirela Loftus, psychiatrist and clinical director for Newport Healthcare. “Kids may feel like ‘why me?’ or as if this makes them different in a bad way, that they did something to deserve getting sick.”
Dr. Loftus also explains that children may feel scared because of what they’ve heard on the news (people dying, hospitals overflowing, etc.). And so, the first thing to do is to not freak out yourself and to speak with your kid in a calm and composed manner. “Parents should keep in mind that their kids are always watching them and can easily pick up on their own fear and anxiety. Speak calmly and reassuringly,” says Dr. Loftus.
Keep your cool and be honest with your child, while using age-appropriate language. For example: “I know we’ve talked about COVID and how we can help prevent it. I know we’ve all been very careful. And I know we’ve also talked about what happens when someone gets COVID and that, fortunately, kids don’t seem to get it as bad as adults. The test you took for COVID came back positive, but you are going to be OK. We will get through this together.”
Let them know what to expect
Dr. Beth Oller, MD, a family physician in Kansas, also stresses the importance of providing comfort while letting your child know what the next few days or weeks are going to look like. “Offer immediate reassurance that most kids do very well and do not get very sick, and let them know that you will be there with them.” Next, let them know what to expect—remember, the unknown is super scary for littles. “Explain to them that most kids get a runny nose, a cough, may or may not have a fever and feel tired, but it will only last a few days. Also, let them know how many days they will have to stay at home and what to expect with that.”
Again, make sure your child knows that they haven’t done anything wrong and that nobody is going to be upset with them. “I have had kids worry that their classmates or teachers might be disappointed because they were going to have to quarantine and miss school,” says Dr. Oller.
Then give them a chance to ask questions—what do they want to know? Is there anything that worries them that they would like to tell you? “Reassure them that doctors can help them if they need anything and that you are also there to care for them,” the physician adds.
Focus on the positives
While you definitely want to be honest with your kids (they know when you’re lying or sugar coating the hard stuff), you can help ease the blow by focusing on the positives. “You can frame it as a time to do fun things together by letting them pick some activities to do with you, like a movie, some snacks to have or maybe even a craft to do,” suggests Dr. Oller.
If they’re worried about quarantining, Dr. Loftus suggests saying something along the lines of: ‘I know it’s hard not to see your friends, but guess what? You get to watch TV instead of going to school for a few days!’ (And what kid wouldn’t be at least a little bit excited about that prospect?)
If they’re nervous about the physical symptoms, try: ‘I know you’re not feeling well, but this COVID is really not a big monster after all, just some sniffles and a cough—and you get to eat ice cream!’
For some kids, it might help to normalize the experience if possible. You could remind them that other friends or acquaintances in the neighborhood also tested positive and had to quarantine or were sick, and they were all soon fine.
What not to do
Keep it age appropriate, Dr. Oller recommends. Obviously, your 3-year-old is going to need fewer details than your 8-year-old. “Let your children guide the conversation and allow them to let you know how much specific information they would like or need to feel better,” she suggests. Like any difficult topic of conversation, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to leave the lines of communication open.
“Don’t accuse your child of not taking precautions or taking COVID seriously enough,” cautions Dr. Loftus. Even if you’ve done everything right, breakthrough cases happen and this isn’t the time for I told you so. “This is a time to connect and relate—what’s done is done.”
And again, while it’s important to be honest and state the facts, avoid mentioning anything that could make your child feel more scared and anxious than they already are. “For example, bringing up death, hospitals or extreme symptoms can cause more harm than good and make kids more fearful in this situation,” warns Dr. Loftus. If your child asks about these things (which they might), explain that serious illness and death in kids from the virus are still thankfully very rare and remind them that you will get through this together.