The topic on everyone's lips and in our parenting classess recently has, not surprisingly, been the Coronavirus outbreak and many parents are worried about how to address it with their children. You would have had to be extremely isolated indeed not to have been aware of the general discomfort setting in as the Covid-19 virus has spread around the world. As panic stockpiling of toilet paper and other basics indicates, some adults are becoming very anxious so it’s no wonder if our children are worried about what they’re hearing.
The first thing we can do to help is to be aware of what they ARE hearing. Never assume that your children aren’t listening to your adult conversations even if they seem to be preoccupied and not bothered. If you’ve been talking about it within earshot of your children or they’ve heard radio or TV reports about it or it’s being discussed at school then you need to address it with them in a way that they can process.
The spread of this virus is something that is still unfolding and we don’t know what the scale of it will be. It will certainly have some effect on the lives of ordinary families even if they do not contract the disease themselves.
- Be informed. This is an unprecedented public health emergency. As usual in the internet era there is misinformation swirling about so do make sure you get your facts from a trusted source such as government websites. When I first wrote this blog 10 days ago there had been over 100,000 cases worldwide with 206 confirmed cases in the UK and 2 deaths (both elderly people). As I’m revising it on 16th March those numbers have all increased, with 1543 cases and 55 deaths in the UK. The numbers worldwide are difficult to estimate since testing and reporting varies across the world but there may have been upwards of 182,000 cases. Mortality rates worldwide are hard to gauge given the discrepancies about numbers of cases. But it is agreed that those who are elderly or who have immune system issues or underlying health problems are more at risk. Very few children have died from the virus. The risk of contracting the disease is higher if you have recently travelled overseas. In China where the virus originated 67,000 of the 80,860 patients have recovered.
Ask the children what they know about it already and give information according to their age. The questions they ask will help you to make what you say relevant for them.
- Listen to your children’s concerns. Obviously one of our main concerns is not to make our children needlessly worried. They need to know that the adults can and will keep them safe. But it will not help any anxiety they are experiencing to dismiss their concerns. Don’t tell them not to worry.
- When –if your child brings it up do respond to them there and then if at all possible. If your child has brought it up at an inconvenient moment such as when you’re dropping them off at school or at bedtime (very common, in my experience) then bear in mind that if you put off the discussion they may be carrying around their concerns so will not be able to focus at school or get to sleep. If it’s just not possible then assure them that you will talk about it as soon as you can. If they don’t raise the subject it might still be a good idea for you to introduce the subject calmly so that you can set the tone before they hear rumours elsewhere which worry them. Choose a time when things are calm and you will be uninterrupted.
- How –stay calm. We know that anxiety is very contagious so it’s important that you get your own feelings in check before having a conversation with the children. This is particularly important if you know your child is of an anxious disposition. If you’re aware that you seem stressed acknowledge that and let them know that you are handling your feelings by getting proper information and by using your usual stress-busters such as going for a walk, listening to music, taking a bath or meditating. Give your children hugs and accept hugs from them too.
- What to say –acknowledge their fears and don’t make false promises. If your child is worried that people they care about might die acknowledge that some people might die from the disease but that it is rare, less likely when people are healthy and that there are things people can do to protect themselves. Explain that most people who experience symptoms will get better on their own. “I can see this is really bothering you. Of course you don’t want anyone to get sick. I’m glad you care. Mummy and Daddy and Gran and Grandpa are all fit and healthy so we should be ok. Papa and Nana are old but they are generally well and they are keeping themselves at home mainly so there is less chance of picking up the virus. If any of us do get sick the doctors and nurses will take good care of us.”
- Give control. Much anxiety comes about from feeling we can’t influence events so it will help to empower children as much as possible and let them know how you as a family plan to deal with things in the event that someone gets sick or if you need to be quarantined or if their school closes. Let them know that the government has put in place plans for dealing with the situation. What they can do is follow basic hygiene procedures. Revisit proper handwashing and how to catch a sneeze or wipe a runny nose properly in a tissue and throw it away. Remind them about coughing into their elbow rather than their hands.
- Although the virus originated in China this does not mean that Chinese people are at fault. Challenge any racist views you hear and encourage your children to be compassionate and respectful. Depending on their age you may want to make them aware that there are racist views circulating and let them know that in your family you don’t subscribe to these and that they are based on misinformation.