If you want young children to adhere to social distancing, wash their hands, and stay safe, then it’s vital to explain simply how COVID-19 is transmitted and how it makes people sick.
Many parents don’t talk to young children about causal transmission around COVID-19. They may say, ‘wash your hands’ or ‘don’t put your hands in your mouth’, but, without a proper explanation, this approach may not help kids to protect themselves. By giving them behavioral dos and don’ts—but not telling them why these protective behaviors matter—we’re not equipping them with what they need to apply these rules to new situations. However, my research into children’s understanding of threat suggests that if young children understand at least the rudiments of causality—how the virus moves between people—they might adapt their behavior to stay away from contamination.
Preschool-aged children know little about how illnesses are transmitted. Parents should, therefore, explain simply what viruses are, and how, when someone coughs or sneezes, the virus comes out of the nose or mouth and can go into other people’s bodies and make them sick. This, parents can say, is why we should not put our hands inside of ourselves and then pass the virus on to other people. It is also why we are staying at home: if we are not exposed, we cannot get the virus and we will stay safe. Explaining that soap can kill the virus will help children to understand why they need to wash their hands. It also helps them understand why they should not touch something that another person has touched.
“Unless someone explains, there is no reason why young children should believe that coughing and sneezing are dangerous.”
Young children need threats explained
This focus on explanations reflects research showing that children often find out about what is threatening from what other people say. Several evolutionary theories suggest that humans have evolved mechanisms to help them avoid threats like sickness. But all evidence suggests that children’s understanding of threat grows with their cognitive capacity, and from information that others share with them. Unless someone explains what viruses are and how they are transmitted, young children have no reason to believe that coughing and sneezing are dangerous or to behave adaptively when faced with the threat of getting sick.
Children are sensitive to the emotional responses of others
Another relevant way that young children learn about threat is through what they see and how adults react to threat. At around seven months, babies become very attentive to fear in people’s faces, according to findings by Chuck Nelson, who is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard University’s Program in Neuroscience, and several others.
Young children are keen observers of others’ emotions. During this pandemic, they will likely notice if adults are worried or stressed, perhaps because of fears about jobs, money, or the health of family members. This doesn’t mean that parents should hide their feelings: COVID-19 is a very real threat, and we have good reason to be anxious and cautious. But it is important to keep in mind that parents’ anxiety can have an impact on their children.
Most previous research how parental anxiety affects infants and children focusses on long-term exposure to clinical levels of anxiety and depression. We know significantly less about the impact of short-term exposure. Although children are quite resilient, this crisis may turn out to be long lasting. If it is, then poor parental mental health may have an impact on child development. The take-home message is that parents shouldn’t neglect their own mental health. It can be as important to take time out for yourself as it is to take time out for your children.
“Young children become keen observers of negative emotions expressed facially around them. If a parent is scared, they will pick that up.”
Touch helps emotional regulation
A little bit of touch can help both children and parents during a stressful time. Society might be social distancing, but there is no reason for parents not to touch or hug their children, unless one of them is infected by the virus. In understandably anxious times, children need hugs and warmth to sooth them – and so do adults.
In young babies, emotional self-regulation develops gradually. By six months, infants may have developed a few self-soothing strategies, but these skills grow slowly over the course of the lifespan. The youngest infants often need help calming down, as do toddlers and even preschool-aged children. Evidence suggests that a little bit of touch can settle even mature adults: James Coan from the University of Virginia has done some wonderful research showing that when adults were subjected to the threat of electric shock, their threat responses diminished when they held their partner’s hand, especially if their relationship was strong.
The message from research about managing young children during the COVID-19 crisis is, first, to explain to children what’s going on, and how the virus moves. Second, besides making sure to take care of children, it is important for parents not to neglect their own mental health. Finally, when it is safe to do so, it is important to remember that a little hug can go a long way to soothe both young and old.
Header photo: Nik Anderson. Creative Commons.