Reports of the coronavirus, combined with its potential deadly nature, is reason enough for most adults to have some concern. But for kids taking in the news, fears surrounding coronavirus may be especially daunting.
However, while it’s true that the virus is spreading in China, it isn’t really spreading in the United States.
Currently, only 12 people have been infected and only one person has died from the virus in the United States.
In contrast, 10,000 U.S. people have died already from seasonal flu — including more than 60 children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source reports that the immediate risk of this virus to the American public is considered low at this time.
Nevertheless, rumors that children may hear about the virus can be frightening.
So, how can parents help their children manage their fears, while also remaining aware and alert themselves?
Here’s how experts advise parents to approach the topic of the coronavirus and talk to their kids about the potential risks.
Know whether or not to broach the subject
For kids who are already expressing concern, parents should make themselves available to help them work through those fears. But should families be bringing the topic up if a child hasn’t said anything yet?
Haley Neidich, a licensed mental health professional, and practicing psychotherapist, said that parents should be aware their kids may have concerns, even if they aren’t talking about them.
“It is very likely that children are discussing it at school,” she said, “and just because your child doesn’t bring it up to you, does not mean it’s not on their mind.”
Licensed marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain agreed. “Ideally you have open communication with them, so they can come to you with questions and you can also bring up these topics with them if you feel like it’s necessary and helpful.”
She said her youngest actually brought concerns to her about coronavirus before she even knew what it was. “So, personally, I had to educate myself first so that I could better answer the questions.”
Make sure you understand the risks
Before talking to kids about what they may be seeing on the news or hearing from their peers, parents should make sure they have an understanding of the virus first.
You’ll want to be able to answer your kids’ questions honestly, which is why the CDCTrusted Source can be a great resource.
Dr. Teena Chopra, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at DMC Harper University Hospital, said that “Parents should inform their kids that what is known about the virus at this point is that it is a respiratory virus like other common respiratory viruses that cause pneumonia.”
She said the illness can be asymptomatic (no symptoms), or have symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
“Parents can use the example of comparing it to other viruses such as influenza, and talk about how hand hygiene is the most important thing to prevent the virus,” she said.
Chopra added that parents should be teaching their kids to wash their hands for 20 seconds after bathroom use, before eating, and after going to public places.
Also, they should avoid touching their mouths, eyes, and nose.
Right now, Chopra explained that there are still ongoing investigations regarding how transmittable the virus is and what impacts its severity.
She said that while it’s hard to know the risk levels at this point, the fatality rate is around 2 percent. Current global confirmed cases are a little over 40,000 with 910 deaths.
By contrast, she said the SARS fatality rate was 10 percent and the MERS-CoV fatality rate was around 33 percent.
Having the talk
Neidich said that parents should listen to their children’s fears and not dismiss them. She explained that this can be accomplished by practicing active listening.
In other words, give your children your full attention and acknowledge their feelings out loud.
“Help them understand the facts rather than rumors about the virus when developmentally appropriate,” Neidich said.
Of course, that requires managing our own fears surrounding the illness. That’s why McBain says it’s important to “educate yourself on what’s going on and how you can best protect yourself.”
Parents should also check in with themselves and consider how their fears may be impacting their children.
“When a parent is anxious, their child is going to feel that anxiety and take it on, regardless of how well they think they mask or hide their anxiety,” Neidich said.
For this reason, if the current news cycle is contributing to your anxiety, she suggests talking to a counselor and relying on your support system of parenting peers who may be experiencing similar feelings.
If your child is starting to experience panic attacks or phobias surrounding coronavirus or anything else? McBain said: “A therapist might be the next step to helping you and/or your child work through these fears in a healthy way.”
The important thing is to continue having open communication as a family.
If your child is experiencing worries or concerns, you don’t want them keeping those in. Talk about those fears, rely upon the data we currently have to assuage those fears when possible, and don’t be afraid to turn off the news if necessary.
It’s sometimes okay to step away from the current news cycle for the benefit of your and your child’s mental health.