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As coronavirus spreads not only as a pandemic but also in terms of information flow, it is likely most children have heard (or overheard) by now something about it. This means that they will likely worry about themselves, their friends or family members getting sick, and it therefore becomes increasingly important for us as parents to help them understand the situation in a way that minimizes their anxiety.
What you say about the corona outbreak is as important as how you say it, because children will pick up cues from your response to news or from the conversations they overhear.
If you are initiating the talk, look for a relaxed moment when you can talk openly and without interruptions. “Drawing, stories and other activities may help to open up a discussion,” suggests Unicef. And, of course, make yourself available if it is them who are reaching out.
Unicef recommends to “start by inviting your child to talk about the issue. Find out how much they already know and follow their lead. If they are particularly young and haven’t already heard about the outbreak, you may not need to raise the issue – just take the chance to remind them about good hygiene practices without introducing new fears.”
According to Unicef, “children have a right to truthful information about what’s going on in the world, but adults also have a responsibility to keep them safe from distress.” Therefore it is important that you “use age-appropriate language, watch their reactions, and be sensitive to their level of anxiety.”
Don’t guess or dismiss your children’s questions if you don’t know the answers. Look them up! Sites like Unicef and the World Health Organization provide current and accurate information. This can be an opportunity to learn something together!
Remind your children that the best way they can stay safe is through proper handwashing. Unicef suggests this can be done in a fun way, and recommend a song and a dance to teach them the proper techniques. You should also tell them to stay away from anyone who has a cold or flu-like symptoms, to cough or sneeze into their elbow if they need to, and to let you know if they are feeling unwell. You can also take the opportunity to explain that keeping ourselves and others safe is the reason for the cancellation of events or activities, as well as for keeping social distance.
It is very important that you explain to your children that coronavirus has nothing to do with the way someone looks like, the country or place they are from or the language they speak. This is extremely important because, according to Unicef, there have been a number of reports of racial discrimination around the world linked to the coronavirus outbreak. CDC also highlights the importance of reminding children that “virus can make anyone sick, regardless of a person’s race or ethnicity.” Additionally, it is important to check that your children are neither experiencing nor contributing to bullying by making assumptions on who might have the virus because of their ethnicity or the way they look. If they are the ones being bullied, they should notify an adult they trust about it.
If your children are old enough to have access to social media or Internet, they might be exposed to rumors or inaccurate information about the pandemic. It is always a safe bet to recommend them to check sites like Unicef and the World Health Organization for accurate, valid and up to date information about the virus and the situation. (Around the beginning of the pandemic, there were posts and videos being shared saying that, according to the Unicef, the virus couldn’t survive over 30 degrees Celsius -86 degrees Fahrenheit- and recommending people to drink warm drinks to fight it. Leaving aside the fact that if this were true the virus could not survive inside your bodies, a quick online search in the Unicef site will show you that this information is false).
Since this has also become a period of economic uncertainty for many families, it might be necessary to discuss the topic with children. Dr. Roya Ijadi-Maghsoodi, a child psychiatrist interviewed by Los Angeles Times, recommends doing so in an honest and age-appropriate way but without causing alarm for “kids can make up more scenarios if we’re not telling them the truth.” Older kids and teens might need more information if you have lost your job or need to cut back on expenses, while younger children do not need to be burdened with financial worries, Ijadi-Maghsoodi says. She suggests to let the kids know that you are open to continue to talk about their worries and that you can make it through this. And recommends letting them know that even though “we may not be able to do all the things we were able to do before … we’re here to take care of you.”
Unicef calls this “look for the helpers,” and reminds us that in these difficult times the children need to hear the stories of kindness and generosity. Are there cases in your community of people going out of their way to help, for example, senior citizens so that they don’t need to go out to shop? Share these stories with them! And of course, don’t leave out the stories of health workers and scientists who are working very hard to stop the outbreak and to keep us all safe!
Remind your children that lockdown and isolation is not only for their own benefit, but also to take care of others. Though it might be boring and lonely and they might miss their friends and relatives terribly, practicing social distance is contributing to keeping the virus at bay, and that means the world to the most vulnerable ones and to their loved ones! Who said that being a hero was an easy job?
Make sure you ask your children about their thoughts and feelings regarding what they have heard from you or from others, and give them your full attention.
Unicef advises against minimizing or avoiding children’s concerns and recommends not only validating and acknowledging children’s feelings, but assuring them “that it’s natural to feel scared.”
Remind your children that that there are people working to make things get better, that the risks to them are low, that we are all contributing to keeping everybody safe and, most important of all, that you are here to take care of them. Unicef recommends to remind your children that “they are not likely to catch the disease, that most people who do have coronavirus don’t get very sick, and that lots of adults are working hard to keep your family safe.” And in case your child is sick or unwell, it is first important to highlight that people get sick from all kind of germs, not only coronavirus, and that “they have to stay at home/at the hospital because it is safer for them and their friends. Reassure them that you know it is hard (maybe scary or even boring) at times, but that following the rules will help keep everyone safe.”
It is important to make sure that when you are done talking about coronavirus, your children are not left in a state of distress. Unicef advices to watch for signs of anxiety in your children’s body language, tone of voice and breathing. Make sure you address their concerns before the conversation is over, and remind them that you are available to talk again should they have more questions.
About the author: Edymar Ablan Pacheco is a journalist and children’s book author. You can download her first book, “The Monster Who Loved Throwing Stones,” for free for a limited time by clicking here. By subscribing to her Reader’s List you will also be receiving free coloring and activity pages, mazes, printable jigsaw puzzles and more!