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How to explain a pandemic to a 5-year-old

Trying to explain to a young child why they suddenly can't see their grandparents or go to soft play is hard. We can’t hide reality from our children, but we can equip them with reassurance.

It has happened. Trying to shelter our kids from the worst of the news is now futile. Their schools have closed, reality as they know it has been suspended and we are all getting on as best we can with our new routines.

Like many young children, the question my sons, who are 6 and 4, often ask is ‘Why?’ And that question is coming thick and fast at the moment.

Before we were living in the midst of a pandemic, my 6-year-old would understand that we were being careful so as to avoid catching a bug. I found it heartbreaking when my youngest, who is 4, told me gravely that we ‘must wash our hands.’

Messages from this time will stay with our children for many years to come and while it’s a difficult topic, we have a duty to answer their questions responsibly. But two weeks ago, my eldest sounded out ‘pan-dem-ic’ as Boris Johnson made a TV news announcement at teatime. A week later, he read from the TV screen about the rising number of deaths. Obviously, his greatest fears were that we are all going to catch ‘the Coronavirus’, as he calls it, and die too.

I’m treading a line of trying to be both factual and reassuring. I keep repeating that he and his brother are healthy and probably wouldn’t even feel poorly if they were to catch the ‘bug’. I also say Mummy and Daddy are lucky to be healthy and that we have medicine in the cupboard. I have explained that the schools have closed, and we are all staying at home to stop other people from becoming ill.

I’m aware of keeping their exposure to the news to a minimum, especially as bedtime approaches. Footage of queues coiling around supermarkets alarmed the 6-year-old who asked me, wide-eyed, if we were going to run out of food.

Instead, I’m looking to resources which explain the current situation in a child’s terms. Spanish author Manuela Molina has created a book to explain the COVID-19 outbreak to children under 7. It’s designed to limit anxiety in children and can be downloaded here: https://www.mindheart.co/descargables

Then there are the day-to-day frustrations. Social distance isn’t in a child’s vocabulary. Both boys are demanding to know why they can’t see their grandparents. Or play with their friends. And the 6-year-old is very keen to know just when he will go back to school.

This huge change in their everyday lives, the lack of time with their friends, the huge adjustment to being at home and beside each other all day, every day, is going to have implications. I’m braced for tantrums and lashing out and I am hoping I’ll respond calmly. The hardest part is not having answers for my children when usually I can fix everything with an explanation, a solution or a hug.

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