Talking to tamariki about coronavirus

06 March 2020

How do we talk to our children about coronavirus to keep them informed, but not alarmed? How much do they need to know and how much do our reactions affect them?

  • Sarah_Whitcombe-Dobbs_NWS

    UC Child and Family Psychologist Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs joins an expert panel about coronavirus on Monday night at Manawa health education and research facility.

University of Canterbury (UC) Child and Family Psychologist Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs will shed light on handling domestic discussions about the global virus outbreak at a panel event this Monday night organised by Te Papa Hauora Health Precinct with experts from UC, Otago University, Christchurch District Health Board and Canterbury Health Laboratories. 

Before getting into discussions about the virus, Whitcombe-Dobbs urges parents to be mindful of how much media children are seeing.

“The first rule of thumb is to limit media exposure, especially for younger children, and especially TV coverage. We learned this during the earthquakes. Mum and Dad may want to know exactly what is going on with coronavirus, but for children it can be distressing to see and hear a lot of information about the spread of the disease.”

Another related lesson from the Canterbury earthquakes is that parents need to manage their own anxiety. “If children see their parents really distressed, talking about the topic a lot or seeming overwhelmed by their own worries, then that can undermine children’s sense of security. They need parents to, at least, appear to be in control.”

If children are asking questions, then age will determine the appropriate level of response. “Firstly, listen to what they say and help them identify their feelings. It’s okay to feel scared or worried. For younger children, just reply to their questions factually, but without adding extra information. You don’t want to overload them, but it’s an opportunity to reinforce the safety messages and provide some reassurance. Teenagers will seek out information themselves, but you can support them to be critical of where that information comes from – to distinguish between good quality, reliable information and misinformation that they might come across on social media.”

Public health information about washing hands to protect against catching this, or in fact any, virus won’t be new to most children. “Of course, parents teach their children to wash their hands regularly, most parents are really sensible around this. As a parent you can model this behaviour and perhaps remind children about the importance of hygiene.”Whitcombe-Dobbs has four children herself and is an expert in childhood severe conduct problems, complex developmental and mental health assessment and intervention, and the effects of early childhood trauma.

“The Canterbury region has shown enormous strength in responding to difficult situations and we can remind our kids of what we have coped with in the past – and of the fact that there are lots of things we have learned along the way that helps us to be flexible and adapt to challenges,” she says.

The pop up Te Papa Hauora Coronavirus Covid-19 Public Information Evening is led by international infectious diseases expert Professor David Murdoch, on Monday 9 March at 5pm at Manawa. It is an opportunity for the public to hear from experts and ask questions about this rapidly developing situation. Registrations essential for this free event.

Coronavirus Covid-19 Public Information Evening:

  • Understanding the disease: What is the virus, its features, nature, and how does it infect and affect us?
  • Protection: How we can protect ourselves, our families/whanau and community, and what can we tell our tamariki?
  • Management: How prepared are we, what actions are being taken to prevent and control the virus, and management plans for an outbreak?

The evening will begin with a presentation followed by an expert panel discussion and question time, led by international infectious diseases expert Professor David Murdoch. The panel will feature:

  • Professor David Murdoch, University of Otago, Christchurch, infectious disease expert
  • Dr Sarah Metcalf, Canterbury DHB Consultant in Infectious Disease
  • Dr Ramon Pink, Canterbury DHB Medical Officer of Health
  • Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs, University of Canterbury, Child and Family Psychologist
  • Dr Josh Freeman, Canterbury Health Laboratories, Clinical Director of Microbiology
  • Dr Ben Hudson, University of Otago, Christchurch, Head of Department of General Practice, and Pegasus Health (Charitable) Ltd

If you are unable to attend but have a question, please email your question and relevant panel member to


Media contact:

Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs. Phone: +6433690122,

UC Communications, email:, Ph: +64 3 369 3631 or 027 503 0168.

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