How to talk to your kids about the coronavirus outbreak?

This epidemic time might be a scary time for parents.  An ongoing coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China in December and has since infected more than 20,000 people across the globe has raised plenty of questions: How long will the outbreak last? Can it be contained? Will scientists find a treatment?

These questions don’t yet have clear answers, making them difficult for even adults to wrap their minds around.  That uncertainty, in turn, leaves many parents nervously wondering what they are supposed to tell their kids. Although the daily updates about the virus are alarming, it’s really important to remember the impact these headlines can have on kids.  To save them (and yourself) from unnecessary anxiety, there are a few simple things that you can say and do.

Here are some pointers for keeping kids calm and holding a panic-free conversation about coronavirus.

1. Be aware of your own behavior

It’s important that parents and caretakers understand the effect their own behavior can have on children.  If you’re visibly upset or react in a way that suggests you’re fearful, they’ll take their cues from you. Just remember to stick to what we know about the outbreak.

Molly Gardner, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, has some simple advice: Stay informed, keep perspective and be honest.  “Kids’ emotions feed off of parents’ emotions,” Gardner says. For that reason, it’s important that adults stay up-to-date on the news, so they can answer their kids’ questions to the extent possible, but avoid falling into a pit of anxiety about the outbreak.

2. Tell them the facts

Scary headlines attract attention and help sell newspapers, but they don’t always tell the whole truth: Ensuring you’re armed with facts will help keep coronavirus conversations calm, considered, and constructive.  One of the best things parents can do for worried kids is find out what they’ve heard, then correct misinformation.

So what do we know and how much should you share with a child?  As of Feb 7, 2020, there were just twelve confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Vietnam.  By comparison there are more than 31.173 confirmed cases in China, with all regions affected.  Most of the 638 people who have died so far are known to have already been in poor health, and all but four of the fatalities were from Hubei province, where the outbreak began.  No one in Vietnam has died. Sharing this information should help reassure kids that there is no immediate risk to themselves, their friends, or their family.

Parents should also tailor their approach depending on their child’s age, information processing style and exposure to news about the virus, says Ellen Braaten, co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“You have to know your child,” she says. “Does more information help them cope, or does more information make them anxious?”

Adolescents, who have likely been exposed to information about the outbreak online or at school, can probably handle a frank discussion, Braaten says.  She suggests asking them what they think about the outbreak or if they’re worried about anything in particular, then sharing your own thoughts about the situation.  For younger kids, Braaten suggests listening more than you talk. “Find out what it is they’re fearful of and what they already know about it,” she says. Try to answer any specific questions they have, even if those questions feel uncomfortable.

3. Explain what efforts are being made to contain the virus 

Chinese authorities appear to have acted quickly.  Travel in and out of the affected areas has been restricted, and scientists are working to develop a vaccine.  In Vietnam, the government is carefully monitoring the situation. A federal task force is leading the government response to the coronavirus, so kids should be confident any confirmed cases will be isolated and treated quickly.

4. Finally, offer practical advice 

The most useful approach for kids of any age, Braaten says, is reminding them of things that are in their power to protect themselves from getting and spreading illnesses of all kinds.  “Knowing there’s something we can do makes us feel less powerless,” she says. This outbreak offers a great opportunity to teach your kids basic prevention practices:

  • It’s a good idea to teach your kids how to take precautions to keep themselves from getting a virus of any sort, including
    • keeping hands clean by washing them regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based rub
    • not sharing utensils and drinks, covering their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze
    • coughing and sneezing into their arm or elbow, not their hands
    • avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth…and all those other healthy-living tricks most people learn as very young kids.
  • Go over other healthy habits, like having proper nutrition, getting lots of sleep and bundling up when it’s cold
  • Avoiding anyone displaying symptoms such as a fever or a cough
  • Last but not least, be careful about medicating kids, even with over-the-counter drugs, without checking with a pharmacist or doctor

Events like this can be very scary for kids, so focusing on the known facts rather than fixating on worst-case scenarios will allow your child to process the situation and keep it in perspective. However worried you may feel, do your best to keep your concerns to yourself and make sure your child understands that you will do everything in your power to keep them — and yourself — safe.



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