Disease outbreaks are scary, especially when it’s a new virus that’s infecting people on a large scale.
With stories about coronavirus plastering almost every news site, it can be more than a little daunting to sort through the information without freaking out. And if adults are worried, you can bet your kids probably are too.
But coronavirus doesn’t have to be a viral boogeyman. Honesty and directness are key to having a productive conversation with your child about this new disease, said Diane Bales, associate professor of human development and family science at the University of Georgia.
Here are a few tips on how to frame that chat to relieve your child’s fears about the virus:
Monitor the information your child is getting.
Depending on how old your kid is, a lot of what they’re seeing may be from social media, which is not always the most reliable source of information. You want to make sure to watch and contextualize what your child is reading or hearing. Answer their questions honestly without going into too much detail, if it’s not required.
Explain what’s going on at their developmental level.
“Very young children who don’t have the basic ability to understand how germs are spread are just going to be scared by this information,” said Bales. You may need to explain that process on their level to help them understand that they’re not going to spontaneously get sick from the virus and that there are things they can do to stay healthy.
Put the outbreak in scope.
Without diminishing the effect the outbreak is having on China, explain to your child that the coronavirus isn’t widespread in the U.S. Help them understand that they aren’t likely to come into contact with the virus.
Give children a sense of agency.
Teaching kids to wash their hands regularly and sneeze into their elbows instead of their hands gives them a sense of control over their bodies. “It gives them a feeling of ‘there’s this thing out there that’s scary but there are things I can do to prevent getting it,’” Bales said.
Use the opportunity to explain why it’s important to stay home if you feel sick.
Sometimes parents don’t even realize the potential seriousness of sending their kids to school while they’re still contagious. This is a good opportunity to teach children (and remind yourself) how important it is to limit contact with people while sick to avoid spreading their bug to other people.