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Talking to Your Kids About Contagion News

Expert advice to prevent young minds from running away with fears.

News of an epidemic or pandemic can cause a frenzy in schools, workplaces, online, and at home. Follow these steps to reduce your child’s rising fears and underlying anxiety.

Get Yourself Comfortable with the Information First

Before you address your child’s fears, check in on your own anxieties about illness and the current news. Information you pass on can be tinged with your preoccupations and transfer unnecessary stress. Explore your history of anxiety, express concerns privately to a trusted friend, and keep conversations with children as uncomplicated as possible.

Also, equip yourself to answer the many questions that will come up by consulting reliable sources that track the disease and provide clear action steps. When you know how the disease spreads, its symptoms, demographic risk factors, cases reported near and far, and what hygiene habits are recommended, it is easier to reassure your child.

Reliable sources for COVID-19 information include:

Above all, remember to keep the lines of communication open. Make yourself available at the random times kids will want to talk about any part of the news, school procedures, and friend and family interactions.

Balance Facts with Reassurance

Don’t sugarcoat, but answer your child’s questions with as much factual information as is age-appropriate. With younger kids, keep things simple, reminding them that adults they trust will continue handling the care they’ll need. Dispel general fears by explaining the reason why people are wearing masks, schools are shut down, and vulnerable family members are particularly concerned.

“A kid’s imagination can be way worse than we think,” says Matthew Pedersen, a counselor at Morey Middle School in Denver. He had students come to him with anxieties about COVID-19 before school closures, many of whom haven’t seen him for other counseling needs.

A young brain, a middle school brain in particular, says Pedersen, can be developed enough to “feel all the feelings.” But their frontal cortex, where critical thinking and impulse control happens, is still in development. Helping students reframe their concerns into appropriate perspectives is one way Pedersen addresses the issue. Research shows people who are able to “label their emotions tend to regulate them better,” according to How Emotions Are Made by psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett. Be aware that there may be a different worry underlying a child’s anxiety.

Address misinformation, stereotypes, and bullying behavior that can result from heightened fears. People of all ages are known to spread rumors and harmful assumptions during times of uncertainty. Model appropriate empathy and how to think for yourself when you hear something that’s not right. Ask kids what they are seeing and hearing, and how it’s affecting their thoughts about the situation.

Normalize and diffuse Outbreak news is a good reminder to revamp our hygiene routines. Teach kids to sing a 20-second tune and make lots of bubbles while washing their hands. Equip them with appropriate information about protecting themselves, but don’t go overloading them with masks, hand sanitizer, or gloves unless specifically called for by health officials.

Putting pressure on new habits out of acute fear of the consequences won’t help the situation, says Pedersen. Instead, broaden the reason for regular handwashing, tissue use, and coughing techniques. And, continue your typical expressions of affection and family fun, even if you’re feeling stressed and prone to forget. Kids need normalcy in times of stress.

Connect and Make a Plan

Check in with family, friends, and neighbors regularly via phone or text, and share with your kids that their loved ones are well.
Create care plans in case any one of your people gets sick and keep the number of your primary care doctor, pediatrician, or local health clinic in a convenient place.

“Be thoughtful about your family care plan and validate stress that family members are experiencing,” says Dr. Joel Tanaka, senior vice president of medical services at Peak Vista Community Health Centers.

If your child is up to it, inform them of the care plan and have them commit to help according to their ability. However, don’t put too much on a child showing signs of avoidance and panic.

If the health threat becomes more imminent in your community, practice what your family might do to connect with each other and have fun even while under quarantine or separation. Start talking on the phone and writing notes to each other. Make a list of learning objectives to continue building on at home, consulting teachers and school districts for guidance. Practice coping skills, taking action to do positive things and outweigh negative thoughts. Doing these in advance, says Pedersen, “is a more efficient, less stressful situation.”

Children’s Hospital Colorado’s online video “Answering Kids’ Questions About Coronavirus” shares examples of conversations with kids about the recent outbreak. If your child suffers from heightened anxiety, visit to view conversations with clinical psychologists and therapists.

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