The coronavirus can be a difficult thing for children to understand. They see it on the news. They hear about it in the schoolyard. They may see people in their neighbourhoods wearing medical masks. Given how scary or confusing it can be for young children, it’s important that parents know how to talk to them about it.
Help them understand what the coronavirus is, medically speaking
Start by gauging what they know about the virus and what they’ve heard at school or from friends, says Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto.
From there, make sure to keep it simple. Explain to them that the coronavirus is a germ, and because it is a new germ people are trying to learn more about it and are taking it very seriously.
“Kids typically know what germs are. They get that part, that you can pick them up from people who are sick around you and things that have germs on them,” Dr. Hota says.
Let them know what the symptoms are and what to look out for – coughing, fevers and breathing trouble.
Explain to them that kids are less vulnerable to the virus, but they still can get it.
Avoid talking to them about bigger-picture issues, such as the number of confirmed cases in Canada or where the virus has so far been detected around the world. Getting into those issues can cause more fears than it may relieve, Dr. Hota says.
“They want to know what’s happening around them. Keep it within the context of what they understand. Their world is much smaller than ours,” she says. “Keeping it close to home is important.”
Many children may wonder why some people are wearing masks.
“I would say, ‘Some people are doing that because they think it will keep them safer but right now nobody needs to wear a mask unless a doctor tells you to wear a mask,” Dr. Hota says.
Kids will want to know how to protect themselves from the virus. “Focus on washing their hands,” Dr. Hota says. Tell them that if they have to sneeze, then to sneeze in to their elbows. Remind them to try to not touch their face. Discourage them from sharing food at school.
Finally, explain to them that anyone can get the coronavirus. It has nothing to do with a person’s background or what they look like.
“You have to be very, very careful about messaging that,” Dr. Hota says.
Help them understand why it is in the news
Even young children will likely be aware that the coronavirus is on the front page of newspapers or on the television news, and not fully understanding why can be a source of anxiety, says Matthew Johnson, director of education at Media Smarts, a non-profit organization based in Ottawa that focuses on media literacy programs.
“Help your kids realize this is [a news event] because it’s novel,” he says. It’s new, and so people want to understand what is happening with it. But put that in context. For example, you could explain to them that some projections have coronavirus affecting fewer people than the seasonal flu, Mr. Johnson says.
When it comes to news stories about schools closing because of concerns about the virus, explain to them that this is a public health measure and not because school is unsafe, Mr. Johnson says.
“One of the things for children that frightens them most is when something that had previously seemed safe is made to seem unsafe,” he says.
Most important, steer children toward coverage of what is being done, Mr. Johnson says.
“One of the things that turns fears into anxieties is a lack of control,” he says. “Helping kids focus on what is being done, what public health authorities are doing, what medical professionals are doing and what they can do to limit the spread is probably the most helpful way of interpreting it for them."
Make sure they know they can always talk to you about their worries
Many children may have worries about the coronavirus. Others may have none.
“If it’s not a concern to the child, if it’s not an issue, don’t make it an issue,” says Alice Wiafe, a Toronto-based psychotherapist. That is, don’t foist bad news about the virus or otherwise potentially fearful information on children, especially when they show no signs of being overly concerned about it.
When children do have questions about the virus, limit the information you give them to what they can understand.
“Tell them what they need to know, and don’t tell them any more than that,” Dr. Wiafe says.
With any event such as the coronavirus, the most important thing is for children to know they can talk to you at any time about any concerns they may have, she says. Tell your children that if they have any questions or if there is anything they are worried about, you are always here to talk to them and to help them.
Have a question about coronavirus? Globe columnist Andre Picard will take reader questions later this week. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org