Sarah Helps – Family communication during the COVID-19 outbreak: A guide for keyworker parents and carers to talk to children

Hi there, my name is Dr Sarah Helps, I am a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Consultant Family Therapist at the Tavistock Clinic in North London. I am recording this soundbite to go along with the help sheet regarding family communication during COVID-19. The guide is designed for parents and carers who are thinking about, and planning having tricky conversations with their children regarding being a keyworker over this time.

I want to start off by addressing the issue of how you usually talk to your child about tricky things; are you a family who talks a lot or a little about difficult issues? What are your beliefs culturally, spiritually, regarding religion that you draw on when you are talking about difficult issues? How have you talked about things that are sensitive or upsetting or stressful in the past? You can learn a lot from reflecting on your past experiences about having tricky conversations in terms of what works and what you might do differently in this current, very stressful, and very complicated context.

When you think about talking with your child and answering questions they might have about working during COVID-19 it is important to first think about your own emotional posturing, your own emotional tank. It is important to think about what questions you are most worried about having to answer from your child. It is important to rehearse the kind of answers you might give to those tricky questions, and we all know that kids are very good at asking the questions we least want to answer. If you are worrying about how to answer difficult questions practice your answers, and practice them with a friend or a colleague, or use the NCL helpline to think through how you might respond to difficult questions.

As a psychologist and family therapist, and as a mother of teenagers, I know that not all conversations go well but it is much better to try and talk about difficult things, to fail, to get it wrong, to be clumsy, to review and to go back again. We know that tricky conversations take practice and that you will learn together and get better at talking about difficult things together.

Over the past few weeks in clinic, and indeed within my own family, children have asked some really complicated questions of their key working parents. The have asked; is it safe to go to work? Will you catch COVID if you go to work? Who will look after me if you get sick? Will you die if you catch COVID? Why do you have to be a key worker, why can’t you stay at home like my friend’s parents? Kids have asked whether it is safe for them to go to school, whether they have to go to school, particularly that’s a tricky issue for teenagers. Teenagers have also asked if it is ok for them to go to school, why isn’t it ok for them to go out with your friends? Kids have asked do their parents have enough PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), does their workplace sufficiently ensure that they are safe in doing their jobs? And all kids are asking when is this going to end, when can we get back to ordinary life? These are questions that have complicated answers, the answers are complicated on the basis of the age of the child, the developmental stage of the child, and the way that you and your children are understanding the evidence and information that currently exists.

As I said before, there are no straightforward answers to these questions, think through the most challenging questions that your child might ask you, and do some rehearsal of the answers that you might give. You might need some help with this rehearsal, ask for it from friends, family, or the NCL helpline if you think that would be of benefit. The most important thing is to carry on talking, even if that feels difficult. I wish you the best of luck in this.


Sarah Helps is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Consultant Family Therapist at the Tavistock Clinic. This podcast accompanies a help sheet regarding family communication during COVID-19. Sarah speaks about the guide designed for keyworker parents and carers to support them in talking to children about being a keyworker over this time.