How to talk to kids about coronavirus
Whether your child is afraid of getting their flu shot or has been coming down with one bug after the next, contending with cold and flu season as a parent is always a challenge. Now, families’ concerns are elevated, thanks to the spread of coronavirus — also referred to as a novel (new) coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 — across the U.S. and a growing number of countries. As of Tuesday, March 3, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) clocked the total number of cases in the U.S. at 60.
One reason to take heart: “Since this virus is in the family of viruses that cause the common cold, it’s likely that healthy children and adults will resolve the illness on their own and recover without any problems,” notes Dr. Rodney Rohde, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) Program and Associate Dean for Research for the College of Health Professions at Texas State University.
Still, children are sure to see stories that make them worry about the spread of the latest contagious bug. However, while feelings of stress and anxiety are normal, you’ll want to allay your child’s fears and concerns. “Overall, it is important to talk with your children regarding what is going on, as they may be seeing social media or other media discuss this outbreak,” notes Rohde.
Here, strategies for talking to children about coronavirus, according to experts.
1. Strive for age-appropriate communication
Dr. Rosemary Olivero, M.D., the section chief of pediatric infectious disease with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, says “lively terms” like “germs” or “bugs” work well for young kids. They also respond well to pictures of the virus under a microscope, which help them wrap their heads around something that’s otherwise blind to the naked eye. (You might also want to check out an episode of the show “Ask the StoryBots” on Netflix called “How Do People Catch a Cold?”)
“Use very concrete language, like how ‘spit’ can cause germs to pass to one person or the next,” Olivero says. Then emphasize that the best way to “not let those germs get into your own body is to wash them off before you touch your food or your face.”
She also advises recalling a time when the child was sick previously. That might sound something like, “Leo, remember when you got really sick and threw up and couldn’t eat for days? That’s because you got a bad germ from someone else. We can’t see those little bugs, but we can keep our bodies healthy by washing our hands.”
“This age group is much more aware of their bodies, and they are motivated to please their parents and to get rewards,” Olivero notes. “Positive reinforcement can go a long way with this age group, so be sure to recognize healthy behaviors.”
In other words, your fifth-grader will respond well to being praised for washing his hands or coughing into his elbow instead of his hands.
“You really want to enable them to take care of themselves independently,” Olivero says. She recommends avoiding anything that could be interpreted as lecturing. Instead, ask them questions, give them the chance to ask questions and, in general, strive for a back-and-forth discussion about the virus and prevention. This can lead to a lot more engagement and learning, she notes.
This is also a valuable opportunity to talk about how other countries handle health care crises and what access to medical care looks like in the U.S., says Dr. Deborah M. Mollo, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician with CareMount Medical, the largest independent multispecialty medical group in New York state.
2. Talk about preventing infection
“The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person — between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” says Dr. Amy Fuller, DNP, WHNP-BC, MSN, RN, director of Endicott College's family nurse practitioner master's degree program. “These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. The virus is also spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects.”
Discuss everyday ways transmission can occur, like kissing or sharing cups or utensils or personal care items, says Olivero.
Then, you can pivot to the fact that preventing COVID-19 can be done effectively with the same measures as done for other common cold and flu viruses, says Larry K. Kociolek, M.D., MSCI, attending physician and associate medical director of infection prevention and control at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Teach your kids to wash their hands, especially after toileting, coughing and sneezing and before eating or touching their mouth, nose or eyes,” he says.
These lessons can have a positive effect on kids’ emotional health, as well, according to Dr. Dyan Hes, M.D., medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York. “Children thrive when they feel empowered, and by giving them these tools, they will feel more secure,” she notes.
3. Set concrete hygiene rules and regimens
Take advantage of this moment to instill healthy behaviors, particularly with preschool-age kids, Olivero says. For instance, you can set ground rules like “we never eat without washing our hands” or “we always wash our hands with soap and water after using the bathroom.”
And actions are just as effective as words, especially if your child is younger. “Preschoolers learn by doing and practicing, so taking time to practice healthy habits together is very important,” she notes.
4. Check your own sources
Ensuring you’re getting accurate information from trustworthy sources can benefit the conversations you have with your child. Kociolek points to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics as two examples of trusted resources for information.
5. Address racial profiling
Knowledge that the novel coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China, has led to a number of reports of events where people of Asian descent were ostracized or bullied due to suspicions of coronavirus, says Dr. Sandra Elizabeth Ford, M.D., MBA, FAAP, District Health Director and Chief Executive Officer of the DeKalb County Board of Health. For that reason, Ford urges parents to discourage adolescents and young adults from profiling certain groups out of fear.
“And parents should practice what they preach,” she notes. “A child may take very seriously a comment a parent made in jest.”
6. Discuss quarantines or school closings with care
“If your child or family is under quarantine or your school is closed, you should tell your children that if they catch the coronavirus, it will not be a serious disease, it will be just like having the flu,” says Hes. “However, out of the need for public safety, the people in charge have closed the schools and/or the after-school activities, so as not to spread germs.”
7. Model healthy emotional coping
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) experts encourage parents to model effective coping for kids who might be struggling to deal with their own troubling feelings, like fear or anxiety. Parents should avoid appearing overwhelmed by the spread of coronavirus, as children are sensitive to parental anxiety, notes Hes. But it is helpful for them to share some of their feelings and what they are doing to deal with those feelings. Let children know that it is alright to be upset and allow them the space to “own” and talk about their emotions.
Then, simply discussing the action steps you’re taking, in a centered way, can go far to reducing your child’s stress. Rohde says, “Acknowledge the issue as one you are monitoring and working to prevent any problems.”
If you feel overwhelmed and/or hopeless, the AAP advises looking for support from other adults before reaching out to your child.
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