Key Takeaways

  • Acknowledge that everyone has mixed feelings about isolating at home and that it can be challenging for both kids and adults
  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage a two-way conversation, so that the child has an opportunity to express their real questions and anxieties
  • Put on your oxygen masks first: if the parent or caregiver neglects to take care of themselves first, they will not be able to do so for their children

Many parents and caregivers have already discussed the coronavirus and the concept of physical distancing with their children. But how do you explain to your little ones when someone in the household becomes infected with COVID-19 and self-isolation is required?

Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MD, medical director of the MassGeneral Hospital for Children Primary Care and Vandana Madhavan, MD, MPH, clinical director of Pediatric Infectious Disease, share tips for how to frame the conversation when you, your child or someone else in your household needs to be quarantined.

When the Family Needs to Stay at Home

While the exact words and level of detail will depend on the child's age, generally, Dr. Arauz Boudreau and Dr. Madhavan suggest:

  • Explaining that staying at home will help them and others have a better chance of staying healthy
  • Asking open-ended questions to encourage a two-way conversation, so that the child has an opportunity to express their real questions and anxieties
  • Wonder together; children can ask questions that we may not have the answer to, by wondering together they can still feel heard
  • Listing the fun things that can be done at home, such as playing games and having family movie nights
  • Being honest about the things that will be missed during this time at home
  • Acknowledging that everyone has mixed feelings about isolating at home and that it can be challenging for both kids and adults

"Don't try to negate the fact that the child is going to feel loss," says Dr. Arauz Boudreau.

When the Child Needs to Be Quarantined

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with COVID-19 symptoms self-isolate within their homes, ideally with their own dedicated bedrooms and bathrooms. Self-quarantine is a challenging situation for anyone, but it is especially tricky for children.

"For the vast majority of children, this is a mild illness," says Dr. Madhavan. "Try to allay their anxiety as much as possible and make sure older children understand what symptoms indicate that they need to seek medical care."

Below, she shares a few additional tips for how to frame the conversation:

  • Reassure the child that they will be taken care of, just like with any other sickness, with the only difference being that they are confined to specific rooms
  • Build on previous conversations the child has been part of about the coronavirus—washing hands, the correct way to cough, using a mask and staying at home to keep people healthy
  • Explain the logistics using a few concrete details—which room they will stay in, which parent will take care of them and what they can do while they are in quarantine
  • Do not get caught up in the details when communicating with young children. Use language such as, "For the next little while, you will stay in this room and Mommy's going to be the one to help take care of you while you are sick"

Additionally, parents and caregivers should consider the toys and activities that the child loves that could be brought into the room to entertain them and help ease the transition.

"This is not the time to be a stickler for limiting screen time," says Dr. Madhavan.

When Someone in the Household Needs to Be Quarantined

When another household member needs to quarantine, it can be scary for kids to hear that the virus has entered the home and infected a family member.

"Reassure the child that the person who is ill is getting the best care possible," says Dr. Arauz Boudreau. To outline the situation clearly and positively to a little one, she advises to:

  • Explain that since the family member is sick, they are going to stay in a specific room for a while to make sure other people do not get sick
  • Describe how the quarantined family member will be taken care of, such as who will check their temperature and cook their food
  • Focus on solutions and how kids can help make the sick family member's day better. For example, the child could draw a picture, write a letter, record a video or help prepare a meal

"That way they feel that it is not some big change that is being imposed and that they can help facilitate the solution," says Dr. Madhavan.

Put on Your Oxygen Masks First

And remember: the old airplane analogy applies: if the parent or caregiver neglects to put their oxygen masks on first, they will not be able to do so for their children.

"You do not have to be with your child every single moment of the day," says Dr. Arauz Boudreau. "If you need 10 minutes to listen to music or do jumping jacks in order to reground yourself, taking a break from your child's room is not a bad thing."

Taking care of yourself is important in order to be able to walk your child through stressful periods.