“It is extremely important not to label feelings for your children,” she said. “If you start a conversation by saying, ‘You must be so scared about this sickness,’ if they were not feeling scared to begin with, they may end up feeling concern that they are not having the appropriate reactions.”
Her suggestion: Start by asking kids what they already know. “Once you have a baseline, you can guide the conversation. I always encourage using open-ended questions, such as, ‘Have you heard of coronavirus?’ and ‘Tell me what you know about it.’ This will provide great insight into what they have already heard among peers, at school, and from social media,” said Grover.
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, Medical workers walk after checking passengers where a passenger was identified with suspected coronavirus after arriving from Kyiv at Kievsky (Kyiv's) rail station in Moscow, Russia. Russia suspended all trains to China and North Korea, shut down its land border with China and Mongolia and extended a school vacation for Chinese students until March 1. Russian authorities are going to great lengths to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading in the capital and elsewhere.
Grover said parents need to both emphasize and model good hand hygiene, sleep and nutrition. She recognizes the challenge in getting children to follow the 20-second hand scrub recommended by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She's been working with her almost 4-year-old on washing his hands.
She urged, “For younger children, you may put up a checklist for them. If there is pushback, encourage doing things together. For example, ‘Let’s wash our hands together.’”
Grover said it helps if schools and parents reinforce the same message.
“Find out what your school is saying and what strategies they have in place. We know that consistency across environments is necessary for young children,” she said. “For example, if there is a song that is sung at school as a handwashing timer, decide on a good song for home or use the same song that the school is utilizing.”
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(Moms on social media recommend a 20-second handwashing anthem adapted from the Queen shout-along "We Will Rock You." The moms tweak the song to proclaim, "We will, we will wash you.")
Schools in Georgia are emphasizing handwashing. "We are really revamping our efforts around handwashing education and germ prevention and involving health and PE teachers, school nurses and all the adults in the buildings," said Amy Roark, president-elect of the Georgia Association of School Nurses and director of nursing for the Clarke County School District.
“One thing I have stressed to school nurses, provide the facts and remain calm and reassuring. Children look to adults on how to react to these stressful events,” Roark said. “If parents and school staffs are overly anxious, then children’s anxiety will also rise.”
Schools and parents should tell children that everyone is working hard to help them stay healthy and keep people safe, said Roark. “Make sure you are giving kids necessary information honestly and accurately,” she said.
Grover cautioned against talking in absolutes or promising outcomes you can’t guarantee. “If you say, everything will be OK no matter what, we run the risk of lying. Rather, use language that reinforces we are doing the best we can.”
Grover also said it’s fine to admit you don’t have all the answers. “This is a good opportunity to talk with your children about being conscious consumers of information and doing research,” she said. “Also, it’s a great way to figure things out together.”
Tips about talking to children about the coronavirus from Dr. Anita Grover, an Atlanta psychologist:
Talking to young children:
- Providing all of the details to 5-year-olds may lead to misunderstanding, overwhelm, or fear. Explain that people can all catch colds and other viruses. But there are things we can do to stay healthy, such as washing our hands, covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze and not sharing utensils with other people.
- It is extremely important not to label feelings for your children. If you start a conversation by saying, "You must be so scared about this sickness," if they were not feeling scared to begin with, they may end up feeling concern that they are not having the appropriate reactions. It is best to ask broadly, "How are you feeling about all you know?"
- Don't overpromise that washing hands or covering their mouths will guarantee they won't get sick. Rather, use language that reinforces we are doing the best we can.
- Be mindful of your reactions. Set a calm and reassuring tone.
- Our children are always watching us and listening to what we say, even if it seems they are not. Model good behaviors, such as hand hygiene, and be cautious of reactions to information heard on the radio or news.
- Keep routines consistent. For younger children, you may put up a checklist for them. If there is pushback, encourage doing things together. For example, "Let's wash our hands together."
- Explain that many people — teachers and doctors and nurses — are working hard to protect them and keep everyone safe.
Talking to tweens and teens:
- Be proactive. By having discussions at home before schools are talking with your kids, they have a good framework to operate from, and they are then able to attend to the information they are learning in the community.
- Ask what your children know. Once you have a baseline, you can guide the conversation. I always encourage using open-ended questions, such as, "Have you heard of Coronavirus?" and "Tell me what you know about it." This will provide great insight into what they have already heard among peers, at school, and from social media.
- Manage social media usage and direct children to reliable sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Warn them there is a lot of misinformation on social media and they need to rely on trusted sources.
- Remind them what they can do to stay healthy, including 20-second handwashing, getting enough sleep and eating well to fortify their immune system. They should try and stop touching their faces and avoid sharing forks and spoons with other people.
- Reinforce it's OK to ask questions at any time. Just because one conversation has been had, it does not mean that further discussion should not happen. Different individuals process information at different rates. Additionally, different emotions may arise over the next few days and weeks. We want to aim to support our children as they experience multiple emotions.
- It is absolutely fine to say, "I don't know" or "I'm not sure," rather than providing a response or answer that may not be correct or accurate. This is a good opportunity to talk with your children about being conscious consumers of information and doing research.
- Be aware of your children's feelings. Listen to what they are saying and account for their personalities and how they respond to situations. If their emotions become very overwhelming and they are experiencing significant distress or panic attacks, you may consider working with a trained mental health professional to learn skills to address emotions and reactions.