New Comic Helps Children Understand—Not Fear—Coronavirus

printable comic includes pictures and words to ease anxiety

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A new comic explains the coronavirus to kids in a positive, understandable way, developed by and available from NPR. It explains the need for proper hygiene and how rarely children get it. If comics aren’t for you, here’s how to ease kids’ anxiety.

Mother and child reading a comic book while sitting on the ground
Age-appropriate activities and discussions with children can help ease their worries during high-anxiety situations. Photo by Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

With schools closing and adults hoarding toilet paper, kids are getting nervous. National Public Radio has produced a comic for them—available at the link above—so they can understand what’s going on with the new coronavirus.

“It’s based on a radio story that NPR education reporter Cory Turner did,” the website said. “He asked some experts what kids might want to know about the new coronavirus discovered in China. To make this comic, we’ve used his interviews with Tara Powell at the University of Illinois School of Social Work, Joy Osofsky at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, and Krystal Lewis at the National Institute of Mental Health.”

Children often get anxiety despite our assumptions about the joys of childhood. There are many ways to talk to them. If comic books aren’t your thing, try these instead.

Social Referencing

Humans have a “fight, flight, or freeze” response that helped our ancestors survive in prehistoric times. In children, that decision to fight or run—or just stand, scared stiff—can be triggered by many things adults wouldn’t find troubling. How parents react can affect children’s anxiety levels.

“In psychology, there’s a concept called social referencing, which means taking cues from a trusted person about how to respond in an unfamiliar situation,” said Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author and clinical psychologist. “So when a young child sees a dog for the first time, she looks at the dog, then looks up at her parent to see, ‘Should I be scared here?’ If the parent is relaxed, then it’s easier for the child to relax and approach the dog.”

At the same time, Dr. Kennedy-Moore said, if we help the child escape the situation, they believe they had reason to be scared. This applies to more than just dogs, too. When a parent lets a child sleep in the parents’ bed because the child thinks she saw a monster in her room, the parent lends some credence to that by agreeing that it’s “safer” in the parent’s room.

“When we leap in to save them from anxiety, we encourage their escape response and make it harder for them to approach the situation next time,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. However, she added, we shouldn’t just tell kids to “get over it.” Turning them gently toward bravery with baby steps can help a great deal.

Exposure Hierarchy

Dr. Kennedy-Moore said that sometimes adults need to help kids find intermediate steps along the path to their goals of overcoming anxieties. This, she said, is called developing an exposure hierarchy. To illustrate this, she gave an example of a little girl she treated who was terrified of people in costumes.

“To build up this girl’s confidence that she could tolerate being around people in costumes, we started by having her cut out pictures of people in costumes. Then she took photos of herself and family members wearing masks. Then she took car rides past people in costumes, and visited a restaurant with a character, until finally she was able to visit a theme park and watch a parade of people in costumes.”

Dr. Kennedy-Moore said this kind of “gradual exposure approach” can be used for a wide variety of situations—the trick is to stay at one stage until it isn’t scary for the child anymore.

Professor Jane Doe, captioned here to test out our captioning format issue

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore contributed to this article. Dr. Kennedy-Moore is an author and clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting and children’s feelings and friendships in her Princeton, New Jersey, practice (license #35SI00425400). She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Northwestern University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Stony Brook University.