Ask Ada: How Do I Explain Coronavirus To My Kids?

Plus: what to do when your relatives won't practice social distancing.

Welcome to Ask Ada, Folks’ bi-weekly advice column for people impacted by health issues or disability. Want Ada to help you with a problem? Email Ada at or tag @folksstories on Twitter with the #askada hashtag.

How Do I Talk To My Children About COVID-19?

Dear Ada, 

I don’t know how to talk with my children about the coronavirus. Their ages are varied. I have a one year old, 6 year old, and 10 year old. I feel like my ten year old is extremely anxious that we’re all going to die. My six year old is angry because all her friends and activities were taken away (school, gymnastics, swim class). And my one year just keeps asking over and over again for her grandparents who used to watch her while we worked, but now can not come over. I feel like I’m failing as a parent. What do I tell them and how can I support all their needs?

You are absolutely not failing as a parent.

We’re all experiencing something that we’ve never lived through before — a pandemic. There’s no “right” way to do anything. (Well, besides following guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).)

Your children already understand that things have changed, so there’s no need to keep the outbreak from them. Be honest with them. Be the person who explains what is happening to them in an age appropriate manner, so they don’t hear about the outbreak from outside sources.

Now, it sounds like at least one of your children already has some knowledge — regardless of whether it’s correct or not — about the coronavirus. I’d suggest sitting your ten-year-old down separately from the other two and asking them what they know about the pandemic, and who they’ve heard it from. 

Are they listening to you talk to your partner or speak on the phone with a friend or family member? Is the news constantly streaming the background? Are they using social media? You’ll want to correct any misinformation your child has absorbed, and filter the type of information they have access to in the future.

We’re all experiencing something that we’ve never lived through before — a pandemic. There’s no “right” way to do anything.

Your oldest child is going to need some increased support to calm their anxieties. Can you access tele-treatment with a counselor? If not, work with your child on creating coping strategies for calming their fear of death. Remind them how you’re taking safety measures by practicing social distancing. Reassure your child and support them however you can. Do your best to ensure this outbreak isn’t traumatizing for your child.

You’ll want to approach the subject with the younger children separately. Explain that there is a new virus that is making people sick, and by staying home we’re all joining together as a community to help make sure the virus does not spread. Tell them how everyone who’s sacrificing their fun activities now are superheroes — and yes, they are superheroes, too!

Sure, swim class isn’t an option right now. But there are so many other activities your six-year-old can participate in from home. Can she FaceTime with friends, write letters to her teachers, or make art to mail to family members? Does her dance studio offer virtual classes? If not, find an age-appropriate lesson on YouTube. Make an obstacle course in your home, and practice gymnastics activities until she’s mastered her tumbling.

Your one year old isn’t going to absorb the information like their older siblings, so to meet their needs, schedule frequent video calls so she can see and communicate with her grandparents. If that’s not possible, show her pictures of them, and let her color on paper and mail her creations to her grandparents. Toddlers may show an immediate hesitance toward unwanted change, but will adjust quickly to a new consistent routine.

Finally, take care of yourself, too. Your children need you to be calm and reassuring during this major moment in their lives. Practice self care so that you can lead your family through this, and be gentle with yourself as you navigate uncharted territory.

Horror woman behind the matte glass in black and white. Blurry hand and body figure abstraction.

How Do I Get My Mother-In-Law To Practice Social Distancing?

Dear Ada, 

My mother-in-law will not respect my wishes and stay home or stay away from my home as we’re trying to practice social distancing because of the coronavirus. What’s worse is that she has diabetes, a condition which makes puts her in a higher risk category for COVID-19, which is part of the reason I want her to be safe at home. When I first told her that we should stay in our own homes, she refused and kept trying to visit until I literally wouldn’t open the door. Now, she stops by and talks to the kids through the window. But: my kids are little, and they can’t understand why we don’t want Nana to come in or why they can’t go outside when she’s here. She’s making it so much harder for me! How do I get her to stop coming over and take this more seriously?

Your frustration is valid.

Your mother-in-law should have taken the novel coronavirus more seriously from the beginning. And, just as importantly, she should have respected your stance on social distancing so as to not make things so difficult for you and your children.

You may be in control of your household, but you are not in control of your mother-in-law. Therein lies the problem. Unfortunately, all you can do is be firm with your boundaries, and try your best to educate her on the severity of this global pandemic.

Here’s a question for you: what is your spouse’s role in communicating your household requests to your mother-in-law? Since it’s their mother, they should be the person setting and enforcing the boundaries. Not you.

You may be in control of your household, but you are not in control of your mother-in-law.

If you haven’t spoken to your spouse yet, I urge you to go to them with your concerns, and place the onus on them for remedying the situation. 

Then, let go of what’s happened in the past. There are thousands, millions even, of other humans who didn’t take this outbreak seriously from its origin. Remember, this is uncharted territory we’re in. Choosing to stay mad at her for the times she tried to visit against your wishes is pointless, and only affecting your wellbeing at this point.

Which brings us to the present. I do think your mother-in-law needs to practice social distancing — for her own health, and for the health of others. Yet, is it really so bad she’s playing with your children on the other side of the window? Again, we’re all living through something that none of us have ever experienced before. It’s scary. And we’re all just trying to figure it out as best as we can. By being on the other side of the glass, your mother-in-law is getting to see and spend time with her grandchildren, and your kids are also getting social interaction with one of the most important people in their lives. Why not put a comfy chair outside for her for the next time she comes?

We’re all living through something that none of us have ever experienced before. It’s scary. And we’re all just trying to figure it out as best as we can.

Children are resilient. Sure, right now, they might not understand why they can’t play with their grandmother. Explain it to them. Talk to your kids about how people in different households need to stay apart from each other temporarily. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned as a parent, it’s that children model our attitudes. If you lead with enthusiasm, your children will follow suit. Build up the grandmother visits as a positive experience. Have them show her the artwork or schoolwork they’ve created during the day. Let them give her a fashion show or perform a concert with their toy instruments. But don’t push her away out of fear or frustration. This time apart, yet together, could be good for all of you.

Are you facing a problem that is being complicated by a health condition or disability? Folks’ advice columnist Erin Ollila wants to help. Email and tell us your problem.