As the initial fun of being out of school wears off, kids are voicing their fears and concern about the coronavirus. Currently kitchen and dining room tables across the nation are temporary desks for students of all ages, and parents are scrambling. So what’s the best way to talk to your kids about the coronavirus? Renown Children’s Hospital physician-in-chief and UNR Med’s Chair of Pediatrics Dr. Max Coppes gives us some tips.
“Mom, Dad, I’m scared,” is something a lot of kids are currently saying. With vacation plans, schools and sports being cancelled now, and for the near future, you may notice your child getting anxious or even fearful. Dr. Max offers some much needed guidance on talking to your kids about their coronavirus fears below.
1. Be truthful
First and foremost, be honest, and always tell the truth. Kids, even the younger ones, have this canny ‘truth-telling’ radar that allows them to sense whether or not you are truthful. They may not call your bluff, but they know! As we are about to go out on a prolonged uncertain journey together, it is really important that they know they can trust you.
2. Stay calm and controlled
It is ok for children to see and experience that you may be anxious (remember their truth-telling radar will make it extremely unlikely that you can hide your anxiety), but don’t transfer your anxiety to them. They may not comprehend what makes you concerned or anxious about the coronavirus, or they may not care. Either way, don’t make them carry your burden, theirs is heavy enough. Remember, children may be anxious about things that you may not even have thought of, such as: Can I still take a bath, or will I be infected by the water? Will my dog or cat get sick and die?
3. Let your child take the lead
Telling the truth is not the same as telling them everything you know. In communicating with children, I suggest we try to find out what facts they want to know more about and gauge how much they want to know. In general, I let the children and teenagers take the lead. For example, give them the space to express what is on their mind. Why share that their grandmother with multiple health issues, for who I am concerned about, may be at real risk, if they don’t seem to worry about that now?
So open the door for questions and wait. Use open ended questions! Such as: What have you heard? What do you think of that? Is there anything you want to ask? Once the question comes, try to find out why they have a specific question, by asking them to tell you more about that question. Irrespective, don’t formulate the questions for them, i.e. Are you afraid of getting sick or dying? Let the question and initiative come from them.
4. Speak on their terms
Tailor your communication to what they can process. If they ask, “Do I have to worry about getting the coronavirus?” ask them what they mean, or ask what is it that you are most worried about? Why would that be? Because that question could reflect just whether they should worry about getting infected, or worry about getting sick, or about having to go to the hospital (away from home!), or in some cases, worry about dying of it. As a parent you want to know what question you are asked to answer. Once you have answered, try to see what they understand and whether it is all they wanted to know or if they have more questions.
5. Respond to teen concerns
Talking to teenagers is most challenging in my opinion. And while usually your input and opinion is not much valued during their teenage years, in times of deep crises you are an important reference point. Unlike toddlers, they intellectually know much more by following the news on television and social media. So their ‘brains’ know all that can be found publicly, but like us adults they find it difficult to integrate and grasp this knowledge with experience, making some ‘facts’ extra scary.
But like their younger counterparts, teenagers still have remarkable truth telling radars. With them you can share that ‘not knowing for sure’ is distressing to you too. Again don’t volunteer any of your concerns, but respond to theirs. Also, with teenagers it is critical to make time to talk the second they ask. My experience with teenagers is that if you ask them to wait for a minute to finish whatever you are doing, they may disengage and you will have lost the opportunity to communicate with them.
6. Focus on the positive
Make sure to also express hope and progress. So many people are working day and night to find how we can stop this, how we can find new cures, vaccines (like the ones you already had). The reality is that over 97% of those infected will do well, 97%! That is pretty close to the 99% for flu, right? You can say, “It’s tough for all of us right now, but we have each other and that is a great feeling. Maybe we can do some brainstorming about what we can do together.”
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