Mar 9, 2020, 10:43:12 AM CDT Mar 25, 2020, 11:03:49 AM CDT

Talking to your child about coronavirus

News about COVID-19 is everywhere, and it may cause anxiety in children. A psychologist explains how to help.

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Whether through news reports, social media, school communications or from friends, it's likely your child will hear about the new coronavirus, named Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19. With so much being discovered about this virus, it can be normal for children to have questions or feel anxious about what they're hearing.

Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a Children's Health℠ clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, recommends that parents be prepared to talk to their child about the situation in age-appropriate ways.

"As parents, we want to make sure we provide children with honest information that is appropriate for their age and comprehension level," says Dr. Westers. "Creating a safe space for children to ask questions rather than dismissing their fears is an incredibly important way to help them feel safe and supported."

Dr. Westers recommends the following tips when talking to your child about coronavirus to help decrease anxiety.

Check in and listen

If you think your child may have questions or concerns about the COVID-19, start the conversation by asking what they've heard to gauge their knowledge and understanding of the disease. Parents can have these conversations around the dinner table or when driving together in the car. Avoid downplaying the seriousness of the situation by saying things like, "Don't worry about it." Instead, encourage your child to ask questions, even if you don't know all the answers. What's most important is that you listen to your child's concerns, validate their feelings and keep communication open.

"Reassure your child that you are available to talk," recommends Dr. Westers. "Even if you aren't sure how to answer their questions, you can reassure them by saying things like, ‘As we find out more information, we'll let you know' or ‘If you hear something about this, please ask us.'"

Monitor media exposure

Help your child create healthy boundaries when it comes to media coverage surrounding COVID-19. If your child is old enough (adolescents and teenagers), watch limited news reports or read the news together to encourage conversation. However, make sure to use reputable news sources and take breaks from the news as well.

"There's a difference between being consciously aware and becoming so preoccupied with a topic that we become obsessed," says Dr. Westers.

In addition to limiting the amount of COVID-19 media coverage your child consumes, teach your child about reputable sources of information and how to identify them. Rather than trusting every report shared on social media, encourage your child to turn to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for updated and accurate information about COVID-19.

Encourage self-care

Self-care is important for all aspects of life but can be especially helpful when calming anxiety. Self-care can mean different things for each child, but can involve:

  • Taking media breaks
  • Teaching digital health, such as having "no phone" times and keeping technology out of the bedroom
  • Encouraging healthy sleep habits
  • Maintaining a routine and consistent schedule
  • Finding activities your child can enjoy, even if regular activities are limited or canceled due to social distancing recommendations

Look to the experts

Remind your child that many medical health professionals and infectious disease specialists are currently managing COVID-19 as best as they can. Just as the late Mr. Rogers often said to "look for the helpers," it can be reassuring for your child to know that experts who are really good at their jobs are working hard to discover more about this new virus and to keep us safe.

Remind children what they can control

Certain events may feel out of our control, especially a new virus, so it's important to remind children what they can control. Refer to the CDC for recommendations on everyday precautions to help prevent the spread of disease, such as:

  • Practicing proper hand hygiene (see tips for washing hands)
  • Not touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Staying home when you are not feeling well
  • Coughing into your elbow and covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing (throw the tissue into the trash after sneezing)
  • Disinfecting surfaces with household cleaning sprays or wipes

Younger children especially may not fully understand COVID-19 or its implications, but you can still use this as an opportunity to teach them about the importance of hand washing and hygiene to stay healthy.

Address any misconceptions

With so much information being shared about COVID-19, your child may be exposed to misconceptions about the disease.

"We often fear the unknown, and that can perpetuate myths, including about people who are different from us," says Dr. Westers.

When children hear that the COVID-19 outbreak originated in China, there may be misunderstandings that create stigma around certain people, especially Chinese or other Asian-Americans. Talk to your child to make sure this isn't reinforcing any problematic stereotypes (beliefs) or discriminatory behaviors and use the opportunity to point your child towards reputable sources of information about the virus.

Take care of yourself as a parent

One of the best ways to take care of your child and address their concerns is by making it a priority to take care of yourself, too.

"An emotionally healthy parent typically makes for a better parent," says Dr. Westers. "In fact, we know that children are quite resilient. Sometimes parents can be the ones who have more fears – but it's important to know that children feed off our own anxieties and concerns."

Model healthy behaviors by labeling your own emotions and communicating how you handle your stress and anxiety. In addition, make sure that you are also practicing self-care, including taking much-needed breaks from media. If you are extremely concerned, consider consulting a mental health professional about ways to take care of yourself so that you can be a better resource for your child.

In a situation with many unknowns, such as the spread of COVID-19, it is normal to feel worry and anxiety. However, if your child is significantly anxious about COVID-19 or any other topic, and the anxiety persists for more than a couple weeks and interferes with their day-to-day functioning, seek help from a mental health professional.

Learn more about how you can help a child cope with anxiety.

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anxiety, communicable disease, coronavirus, infectious disease, mental health, virus

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