What to say to your child about the corona virus

by | Mar 9, 2020

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By Dr Laura Markham

We don’t yet know how bad the Corona Virus outbreak will be in the United States and across the world. But we do know that people with youthful, healthy immune systems can handle the virus and recover quickly. That means that parents across the world can breathe a sigh of relief that their children are likely to stay healthy. But it’s also worth remembering that our children are not immune to the fear that is swirling around them, about the possibility of a pandemic. It’s our responsibility as grownups to communicate to our children that we can and will keep them safe.

It’s natural to feel some anxiety about bringing this issue up with your child. After all, you don’t want to make your child fearful. But it’s likely that your child has already heard about the virus from friends at school. That can be a source of scary rumours, which you won’t know about if you don’t raise the issue.

Here’s your game plan for talking with kids of any age about the corona virus.

  1. When you talk with kids about a subject that’s in the news, always begin by asking them what they’ve already heard.

That allows you to respond reassuringly to any fears your child is worrying about and correct rumours that aren’t true (“No, it’s not true that everyone who gets the virus dies; in fact most people get a mild flu and recover quickly.”)

Keep your tone simple and straightforward: “Hey, have you heard about the corona virus at school?” If your child says “No, why?” you can answer “Just because it’s been in the news a lot lately. It’s a bad flu that gets spread just like other colds and flus, so some schools are using this as a great opportunity to help kids get good at washing their hands.” If your child says, “Yes, the kids were talking about it” ask your child what they’ve heard. Always start by listening, and acknowledging your child’s worries.

  1. Use discussions with your child as an opportunity to reassure and give age-appropriate information so that he has a context for whatever he hears from his friends.

Your goal is to communicate that:

  • You are safe.
  • Grownups have got this covered.
  • Children and grownups who are otherwise healthy have immune systems that are able to fight off this virus, so we won’t notice it or we will just get something like the flu.
  • Lots of smart and capable scientists and health workers are keeping the virus contained. We are lucky in this country to have an excellent health system.
  • Our job now is to make sure that we don’t unwittingly spread the virus, so it’s more important than ever that we develop good health habits, like washing our hands so we don’t transmit germs.
  • If we can stay healthy, that reduces the spread of the virus and lets healthcare workers focus on helping others who are more vulnerable.

That’s all a preschooler needs to know, and you can keep your explanation age-appropriate.

School-age kids and preteens may have questions you can’t answer, about pandemics and global spread. It’s okay to turn together to the internet for information, but choose responsible sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who will have a measured, non-alarmist approach.

With younger children, if you don’t know the answer, tell them “That’s a good question. I’m not sure what the answer is. But let me find out for you!” Then look it up without your child there, so you can frame your answer in a reassuring way, once you have the facts.

Be aware that all humans find it hard to tolerate uncertainty, so your child may well ask a lot of questions about what will happen. It’s fine to say you don’t know, but remember that underneath those questions is usually worry, so be sure to reassure your child that this virus is no match for the humans who are working to contain it.

  1. Turn off your TV

Every time children hear that there was a death from the virus — even if this is the same death they heard about yesterday — it magnifies their fears. Children under the age of ten should never watch TV news, which is purposely designed to keep us engaged by scaring us.

  1. Teach hygiene

Teach kids that this virus spreads when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes or even breathes. The germs in their body get transmitted by tiny respiratory droplets, that hang in the air and can live on skin, cloth and other surfaces. Those germs can only infect us if they get into our eyes, nose or mouths. Unfortunately, we humans touch our faces about two dozen times an hour, and half of the time we are touching our eyes, nose or mouth — so if we have germs on our hands, they usually get into our bodies.

That’s why it’s so important to develop good health habits such as:

  • Washing hands in hot soapy water for the length of two “Happy Birthday” songs to kill germs.
  • Not touching our faces.
  • Sneezing/coughing into our elbows.
  • Using wipes to disinfect surfaces.
  • Not sharing glasses and eating utensils.
  • Staying home when we don’t feel well.
  • Getting enough sleep. (Anyone who has to be awakened in the morning, whether by a parent or an alarm, is not going to bed early enough.)

It’s fine to remind your child not to touch their face, but keep a sense of humor about this, rather than a sense of alarm. This is a terrific opportunity to help your child develop good hygiene habits, but you don’t want to make them anxious. Instead, commiserate about how hard it is to keep your hands off your face. (Some researchers conjecture that all primates touch their face as a way to help them manage stress and emotion.) Keep count as a family about the impulses you feel to touch your face and how many of those times you are able to notice and stop yourself. Teach your kids workaround habits — for instance, when they want to scratch an itch on their face, they can grab a tissue and use that. Look at this as a good habit for all of us to develop, and share your ruefulness that habits can be hard to establish — but most things worth doing are take effort. We can do hard things, if we support each other!

  1. Empower kids

Research shows that when we feel frightened or sad in response to news, it’s helpful to take some kind of positive action to make things better. That makes us feel less powerless and fearful. So talk as a family about how you can make a contribution to keeping everyone healthy by staying healthy ourselves and by supporting healthcare professionals and people who are vulnerable.

You might:

  • Support your local hospital, for instance by dropping off (NEW) stuffed animals to be delivered to the paediatrics ward. (You and your kids don’t have to go any further than the lobby.) They may not have any patients with the corona virus, but they are on the frontlines of helping people who are ill every day.
  • Remember everyone in the world who is struggling with this illness in your family grace and prayers.
  1. Be aware that your child might well be worried that you will die

Children’s anxieties often surface indirectly. Children who are afraid of losing you to death might “test” you by misbehaving to see if you love them enough not to abandon them. Children may develop sudden fears – of being alone in a room, or left with a babysitter. They might have nightmares or wet the bed. They may “over-react” and have a meltdown about something that seems trivial to you, which allows them to let off stress by crying or raging.

So if your child starts acting out, remind yourself that this might be their way of acting out something they can’t talk about — their fear of losing you. You can address this directly by saying “You seem to be having a hard time lately. I know that some kids are worried about their parents, with this virus going around. I want you to know that I am taking very good care of myself. I work hard not to touch my face so the virus can’t infect me. I eat healthily so my immune system is in good shape. I expect to live until I am a very old person – you will be all grown up and have children of your own and I will be their grandparent!”

If your child is worried about their grandparent, neighbour or other elderly person, acknowledge that concern. “Of course, we want Grandma to stay healthy. She is doing everything she can to make sure she isn’t exposed to the virus. And we can help her stay cheerful by sending her our drawings and having video chats with her.

And of course, the best way to help children work through fear of any kind is play and laughter. So if your child is misbehaving or seems stressed, initiate some roughhousing to get everyone laughing. Laughter changes the body chemistry, reducing stress hormones, and will help your child’s fears melt away.

  1. Work out any worry you have about this BEFORE talking with your kids.

Your own attitude will always communicate itself to your child. Children take their cues from us. So don’t let your children overhear you venting your own fears to other people.

Before you talk with your child about the virus, reassure yourself. Your child is no less safe than he or she was last week. The chances of your family getting anything worse than the flu, even if this is an epidemic, are much less than the chances of a car accident, and you get into a car every day.

If you have a hard time believing this, it’s a red flag that you’ve exposed yourself too intimately to the news. Every time you see more news about this issue, you’re sending yourself back into fight or flight mode. But this is highly unlikely to be an emergency for your family. It’s our job as parents to manage our own emotions so they don’t adversely affect our children, so it’s imperative for us to move ourselves out of panic mode.

It’s important to notice where you are getting your information about this issue. Make sure your sources are trustworthy. So, for instance, the CDCWHO, and Scientific American can be counted on to be non-alarmist and helpful, but there are plenty of sources that are using this health challenge to create general fear. You’re choosy about who you spend time with. Be choosy about who you let influence your mindset.

  1. Make lemonade.

It’s possible that school will be cancelled or quarantines imposed. Even if that doesn’t happen, health officials say that it’s prudent to stay home as much as you can. Many parents react to this with panic, since we have to put dinner on the table, and the idea of being cooped up endlessly with our children is daunting.

But most parents also say that they wish they had more time to spend as a family doing wholesome activities like cooking together or doing art or other family projects. If your family ends up spending more time at home together, why not look at this as an opportunity to strengthen and sweeten your family relationships?

Be sure to set up some routines and structures that will help everyone live together without getting on each other’s nerves. Make sure your kids are involved in a fun way in any work that needs to be done, like laundry or cooking. Then brainstorm to create a list of enjoyable things to do when you’re housebound, some individually and some as a family. Post your lists, put on some great music, and have a family dance party to welcome your Staycation together!