Mother exercising with two young children

Talking to Kids

What is a good way to explain germs to kids under 5?

Children under 3 will have a difficult time understanding germs and will require supervision to help limit their spread. Three-to five-year-old children tend to think very concretely. Things are "good" or "bad," without much gray area. Simple, direct language is easiest for them to understand. To explain germs to them, here are some ideas:

Simple statements can provide the information young children need. "Germs are tiny things that you can't see with your eyes. Some germs can make us sick, but there are ways we can protect ourselves and stay healthy."

Relate the idea to an experience they had, like an ear infection or a cold. "Remember when your ear hurt, and you took medicine? The medicine got rid of the germs that were making you sick and you got better" or "Remember when you had a cold? You stayed home and I took care of you and your body fought off the germs and got better."

It's important to let children know that even though germs make people sick, there are ways to protect against the virus.

How do you encourage hand-washing in kids under 5?

Young children are not able to pay attention to or understand long explanations. Children 2 to 3 years old can follow routine cues to do things like washing their hands. Children 3 to 5 years old like to have jobs and feel important.

For children under 3, try to come up with a fun verbal cue to wash their hands. Ask your child what word or phrase they like. It could be relevant, like "soap to the rescue!" or silly, like "peanut butter and jelly!" Parents will need to initiate the cue, but if you get excited about it and run to the sink, chances are your child will get excited too!

For children 3 to 5 years old, think of who your child admires - a superhero, a movie character, a relative or religious figure. Tell them how that person or character would fight germs by washing their hands. Remind them one of their big jobs right now is to keep their family safe by washing their hands.

No child is going to want to wash their hands all the time. Acknowledge their feelings, and gently but firmly insist they do it anyway. For example, "I know you're tired of washing your hands and you really don't want to do it. I'm sorry it's hard, but we still have to do it."

Remember to give specific praise after hand washing is over. "I'm so proud of you for washing your hands and helping to keep the germs away!" 

How to talk to kids about fun activities they are missing?

Children want to know that they have been heard and just like adults, they don't want to have their feelings minimized. If you had to cancel a trip during this pandemic, you likely wouldn't respond well to another adult telling you it's no big deal.

Let your child know you understand. "You must be so upset and disappointed that you didn't get to participate in this activity. I know you were looking forward to it."

Remind them that even though you don't know when things will go back to normal, at some point they will return to school and get to do those fun things again.

Try to come up with a schedule for the day and keep daily routines in place as much as possible. This helps adults and children!

Schedule time each day for some fun activities that you don't usually get to do as a family. This could be games, cooking, crafts, or whatever you and your children enjoy doing each day. If you have more than one child, they can each pick the fun activity on a rotating basis.

How can you talk to your teenager about social distancing and why it's important?

It is difficult to find a balance between emphasizing the need to practice social distancing and good hygiene, while not causing panic. Older elementary and teenage children can understand the basic concept of a virus and how it can be spread.

Make yourself available for family activities like going for walks, cooking, doing crafts or whatever you enjoy doing together. This is a great opportunity to reconnect!

Allow some electronics or phone time so that your adolescent can communicate with friends or play games online with them. Ideally, this time would be allowed after planned schoolwork is done for the day, and it should still be in limited amounts as part of the daily schedule.

Monitor what your child is reading on social media and emphasize that not all information on the internet is accurate. This is an opportunity to remind your child how to evaluate what they read. Trusted sites include the CDC, WHO, health department or university websites.

Check in with your child frequently about what they are hearing from friends or reading on social media. Clarify misinformation and avoid stigma or blaming in talking about how the virus is spread.

Answers provided by:

  • James Campbell, MD, professor of pediatrics at University of Maryland School of Medicine and pediatric infectious disease expert
  • Deborah Badawi, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Maryland School of Medicine and pediatric developmental and behavioral expert
  • Rebecca Carter, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Maryland School of Medicine and pediatrician at Pediatrics at Midtown

Updated 11/17/2021

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