Topic Child Protection 1

Communicating with younger children about COVID-19

Published: 03/04/2020

Author: Mim Antcliffe

Whilst there is only a limited amount of data about the mental health impacts of outbreaks of disease, it is a time of uncertainty and worry for lots of people, including children. This blog shares a few ideas about how adults might communicate with younger children about COVID-19.

Putting yourself in a child’s shoes

As Shaw (2016) describes in the Research in Practice Frontline Briefing ‘having empathy and being flexible to individuals’ needs are crucial’. We know adults are taking time to adjust to new routines, so how might this feel for children who don’t have a full understanding of the situation? What has changed in their routine? This could be their nursery or school building closing, exams being postponed, the routine of seeing people (teachers, family, and school friends) or missing activities (hobbies, clubs, days out) whilst they are on hold. What might be their fears and worries? How might a child’s previous and current experiences affect their experience of this uncertain time? For example, was their school a protective factor before it closed? If a child is in care, how secure do they feel in their placement or residential home? What does it mean to them if family time has changed?

Reflecting on these sorts of questions might prompt you to initiate reassuring conversations with children on these topics. It could also be helpful to work with children to set a new daily routine and make this available visually.

Communicating with children

‘Every child has a way to make their wishes, views, likes and dislikes known’ (Shaw, 2016).

Adults might need to use a number of different methods, take the lead from adults who know the child best and be aware there is no, ‘one size fits all approach’ (Shaw, 2016). Effective communication methods with young children include active listening and talking, observation and types of play (Norburn, 2013). It can be helpful to have some key phrases or wording to give you confidence to begin conversations with children. Dawn Huebner recently provided ideas on ‘actual words for actual parents’ to support parents or guardians. Some other resources for adults include:

Children can often convey their thoughts and feelings through another medium aside from conversation and observing this can be crucial. Story-telling and videos can be used to facilitate communication and engagement with children, and ideas for communicating through play and activities could be:

  • Social workers are using various online platforms (remaining aware of age restrictions for use of some of these) to speak with children and young people. In relation to family time, it’s important to consider whether video contact while they are at home in a placement might feel unsafe for a child or young person.
  • Our colleagues at Strengthening Practice tweeted about workers using cue cards through a window, working on flip chart in the middle of a lawn doing work together, meeting at safe social distance in a school playground and continuing to work face to face with personal protective equipment.
  • Communicating with younger children using puppets or toys (this can be done over video with you each holding your own toy to avoid cross contamination if you do not live with the child). You might ask them how the teddy’s day has been. This can help children to express their thoughts and feelings (as described in Lefevre, 2010).
  • Asking children to draw, show and explain to you how they are feeling. The Children’s Involvement Team at Sheffield City Council have worksheets to aid direct work with children and young people.
  • Presenting information visually, for example drawing imaginary circles around people to explain social distancing or using glitter on children’s hands to explain how the virus moves to surfaces and the importance of handwashing.
  • Creative play materials and/or baking are also activities where children might explore or convey their feelings.
  • Using visual scales for children to rate how they are feeling at a given time.

These resources may be useful for adults to help children to understand and come to terms with what is happening:  

Additionally, Karen Triesman’s website includes a regularly updated page including resources specifically aimed at supporting children through this time.  

Keep factual

Children are likely to be aware of changes to routine, may have heard news reports or people wearing masks. Children can worry more when information isn’t communicated with them because they might assume it is too awful to share. Information from the news and social media can be highly emotive or even contain misinformation so try to be mindful about how much children are exposed to, even if the television is on in the background, children may pick up information.

Instead of using media reports, try to explain simple, clear facts to children to give them some certainty in the situation. Be patient, you might need to repeat these, there is a lot of information for all of us get our heads around, but don’t be afraid to bring up COVID-19 as a topic of conversation.

Focus on what you and they can do

You can explain to children the things that you and other adults in their lives are doing to keep them and others safe. Children might feel reassured to know there are some simple things like regularly washing their hands that can keep them and others safe and well.

For children with disabilities and those with health conditions that may increase their vulnerability, it may be necessary to do some individual safety and action planning. As detailed in this Communicating with children and young people with speech, language and communication needs and/or developmental delay: Frontline Briefing, and in chapter five of the Voice of the child: Evidence Review, it is vital to include children in this planning especially as their understanding and perspective of their health will be key to any plan. Another useful resource to support this is the Me First communication tool as described in chapter two of the 21st century social work with children and young people with disabilities: Evidence Review.

Listening to children

Both resources above highlight the importance of listening to children and being child-led when starting conversations by taking cues from children. Norburn (2013) also describes in the Communicating effectively with children under five: Frontline Briefing how to use active listening including body language such as nods, eye contact and verbal affirmations such as ‘yes, ok, hmmm’ or reflecting back to them what they have said will build their confidence to ask you questions. It can be helpful to check with children what they already know so that you can use that as a basis to build upon, this will give you an opportunity to correct misinformation they may have picked up on from friends, social media or snippets of news.

Continue the conversation

Available research tells us that events known as ‘tipping points’ will occur during pandemics that can dramatically increase or decrease fear and helpful or health risk behaviours. For example, this could be announcements made by the government, which change guidance or restrict freedoms, this might trigger more questions or discussion.  

Explain to children that you can continue to have these conversations, they might want to ask more questions as things change. It is also important for adults to take care of their own mental wellbeing at this uncertain time. Find what works for you to reduce anxiety; you might find these webinars from Anxiety UK a helpful resource. If you are able to speak to children at a time when you are feeling calmer this is likely to be beneficial for you and them.


Many thanks to Susan Ridpath for her ideas and research for this blog.

Mim Antcliffe

Mim works at Research in Practice with partners across children, families and adult services to support them in using evidence-informed resources. She also leads on specific topics for the annual Delivery Programme. Mim is a qualified social worker and has also worked in research for government departments and charities.


Atkinson M, Binns M, Featherstone B, Franklin A, Godar R, Hay J, Stanley T, Thomas N & Wright A. (2015). Voice of the child: Evidence Review (2015). Dartington: Research in Practice

Lefevre, M. (2010). Communicating with children and young people: Making a difference. Policy Press.

Milner, J. and Bateman, J. 2011, Working with Children and Teenagers using Solution Focussed Approaches, JKP Munro E (2011) The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final report. A child-centred system. London: Department for Education.

Norburn A. (2013). Communicating effectively with children under five. Dartington: Research in Practice.

Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2010) Children’s participation in decision-making.

Research in Practice. (2019). 21st century social work with children and young people with disabilities: Evidence Review (2018). Dartington: Research in Practice.

Shaw P. (2016). Communicating with children and young people with speech, language and communication needs and/or developmental delay: Frontline Briefing (2016). Dartington: Research in Practice.

Stanley, N., Miller, P. and Richardson Foster, H. (2012), Engaging with children's and parents' perspectives on domestic violence. Child & Family Social Work, 17: 192-201.

Tregeagle, S. and Mason, J. (2008), Service user experience of participation in child welfare case management. Child & Family Social Work, 13: 391-401.