In times of crisis, parents are more aware than ever of their responsibilities. Cornish author and mum-of-four Ellie Jackson was so concerned about the growing hysteria surrounding the coronavirus and the impact it might have on her children’s mental health that she felt compelled to act. Two weeks ago, she created a colourful eBook aimed at primary school children, to alleviate fears about the epidemic.
“My youngest children, Audrey, three, and Rafe, six, were playing a game last weekend that involved escaping all the sick people. Some parents have told me their children were so terrified that they were excessively handwashing until their fingers bled – other children won’t touch chairs or tables in the classroom and don’t want to pick up their pen. It’s a serious issue for parents and teachers in terms of how we present this and the language we use,” says Jackson, a former geography teacher and author of the Wild Tribe Heroes series of children’s books about ocean plastic pollution.
“It was obvious to me that my children were picking up information about the virus from lots of different sources, then talking about it with their friends in the playground. But they didn’t really understand what was going on and started getting anxious about what might happen [if the virus spread].”
Jackson collaborated with illustrator Laura Calwood, whose six-year-old son was so scared about Covid-19 he came home from school in tears. “He didn’t want to touch anything and was worried that everyone was going to die,” says Jackson, whose book The Little Corona King has already been translated into eight languages. “Some children have been playing coronavirus tag in the playground or refusing to play with Asian playmates.”
“I wanted to calm people down and bring a lightness to [coronavirus] by diffusing that fear of the worst-case scenario,” says Jackson, who has purposefully set her story in an idyllic-looking location with a “friendly” soft-pastel colour scheme.
The book’s main characters, Jack and Emily, are sent home from school with a “Very Important Letter” about Covid-19 and together they learn the importance of staying germ-free. “I already use storytelling to broach global environmental issues in a positive, gentle way, so I wanted to put coronavirus into context and make a useful, visual tool for parents and teachers.”
Natasha Tiwari, a psychologist and the founder of private education company The Veda Group, agrees that context is key. “Children need to understand that there’s no need to panic – we need to use language that makes sense to them, just as we would do if they asked about terrorism or climate change.”
Tiwari explains that children unconsciously mirror the behaviour and reactions of their parents and teachers: “Children learn by modelling before they learn by being told – if you’re incredibly anxious, your child will catch that in a viral way before they catch any infection. Model a sense of calmness and reasoned caution and try not to catastrophise. Be very conscious of opening a clear and safe dialogue – the moment you have a real conversation about this when it’s not fuelled by fear or panic, you strip the topic of the power to frighten your child.”
One mother, Emma Ormsby* struggled to get her four-year-old son, Angus, to sleep in his bed last week for fear of spreading germs: “He wanted to stay by the kitchen sink because he’d been told by nursery that he needed to wash his hands every time he coughed. I was horrified to see such a young child clearly so weighed down by worry,” says Ormsby, who subsequently persuaded the nursery manager to tone down the discussions around handwashing and not link it to a child’s cough.
“Panic and anxiety charges up a child’s nervous system and that has a physiological effect, so they need to decompress. There’s no need to overwhelm them,” advises Tiwari. If reading books is already part of your routine, Tiwari believes that Jackson’s book can be “a gateway to triggering conversations, alongside plenty of cuddles so they feel safe and secure.” She warns that coronavirus could be a trigger for children who suffer with anxiety or find change difficult, and that younger children won’t always verbalise their feelings: “Anxiety manifests in different forms – keep an eye out for small changes in behaviour, sleep patterns or eating habits.”
Role play is an engaging way to explain coronavirus, according to Rachel Hawes, a primary school teacher currently quarantined in her apartment in Monza, Italy. “I pretended a piece of scrunched-up paper was a germ, and put it in my mouth, then played with it, together with my five-year-old son, Alessandro, so we could discuss how the germ spreads,” says Hawes. “For young kids, acting something out is more memorable than being told something, so role play can be a powerful way for them to explore a situation.”
“Kids have a right to know the truth, but they don’t need to be told the harsh reality,” says Jackson, whose own children now wash their hands thoroughly without being asked, having read the book. “This week, their grandmother’s nursing home closed to visitors for the next few weeks and my kids were disappointed, but because we’ve talked about possible changes since reading The Little Corona King together, they’ve accepted the restrictions without causing further upset,” adds Jackson with relief. “Every picture book needs to have a happy ending.”
* Some names have been changed.
The Little Corona King eBook is now available from Apple Books, Google Play and Amazon.
For information about looking after your mental well-being during the coronavirus outbreak, visit Mind.