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How to talk with preschoolers about coronavirus? Experts weigh in

As one expert put it, preschoolers "think of themselves as the cause of what’s happening around them."
As one expert put it, preschoolers "think of themselves as the cause of what’s happening around them."Adobe Stock

Parents are juggling a lot these days — home isolation, remote learning, unemployment for so many, with piles of virtual meetings and a total lack of childcare options for those lucky enough to keep their jobs. On top of it all, there’s also the task of looking after the emotional health of frightened little kids, often while fielding their tough questions. Why can’t we go to the playground? Why can’t there be any playdates? Will I get sick? The Globe reached out to three psychologists for advice on explaining the public health crisis to our youngest children.

Q. What do you say to kids 5 and under when they ask about coronavirus? Or start showing signs that the situation is stressful for them?

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Archana Basu, psychologist and instructor at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School: Preschoolers use two or three developmentally typical ways of processing information that we refer to as “magical thinking,” in which they think of themselves as the cause of what’s happening around them. And they may believe they have a role to play in this crisis. So when talking to them, one of the main things is to talk openly and provide age-appropriate honest information. Use factual terms like “germ” or “virus,” and explain what changes are happening around them.

Archana Basu, a psychologist and instructor at MGH and Harvard Medical School
Archana Basu, a psychologist and instructor at MGH and Harvard Medical SchoolArchana Basu

Rahul Kulkarni, founder of wellness start-up The Sukhi Project: I prefer the “The Mr. Rogers technique,” where you focus on the positive things that are happening even despite the negatives. So if they ask you, what happens if we get sick? You focus on the doctors and nurses that are doing everything they can to make sure everyone is healthy. Or if they ask why are Mom and Dad staying home right now? You can say “This is something we are doing to keep our family healthy during this time.” In that way, you’re still telling them what the situation is, but you’ve not projected what may be your stress level onto them.

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Kathryn Kraft, family therapist at Aspire Health Alliance: Invite kids to say what they’re already thinking because that will give parents a good base to see where they’re at. Parents can say, “There’s been a lot going on that’s a little different. What do you think about that?” Find out what they already understand.

Q. How much information is too much for this age set?

Basu: For preschoolers, exposure to adult sources of news can be confusing and even scary. But there are very age-appropriate resources that they can use. I personally like the PBS Kids resources. They are very thoughtfully done.

Rahul Kulkarni, a Tufts University clinical psychology graduate, founded The Sukhi Project.
Rahul Kulkarni, a Tufts University clinical psychology graduate, founded The Sukhi Project.Eric Lee

Kulkarni: Talking about them infecting other people doesn’t serve a 4-year-old that well. There should be much more of a focus on the fact that some sense of normalcy will return eventually.

Q. Anything else to keep in mind?

Basu: At this time, supporting parents is the best way to support younger kids. As much as parents can bring a sense of predictability and routine for themselves, the better.

Kraft: Know that this maybe isn’t going to be one conversation. This might be lots of different smaller conversations with your littles.

Kathryn Kraft, a family therapist at Aspire Health Alliance
Kathryn Kraft, a family therapist at Aspire Health AllianceKathryn Kraft

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.