How to talk to kids about the novel coronavirus without scaring them

WATCH: Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said all parents should talk to their children about the novel coronavirus and provided suggestions on how to have that conversation.

As people stockpile groceries and schools across the country temporarily close, children may feel anxious about the novel coronavirus pandemic and what it means for them and their family.

The fear and uncertainty around COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is stressful for many adults and can be especially anxiety-provoking for children.

READ MORE: 2 children in Canada have coronavirus — how the pandemic affects kids

“Kids speak energy long before they speak words, which means that kids are picking up on the adults’ energy around all of this,” said Vanessa Lapointe, a B.C.-based registered psychologist and parenting educator.

“It is upon us as adults to clean up our energy, our thoughts and our actions in order to communicate the belief that we have got this.”

How to talk to kids about the novel coronavirus

Before you talk to your kids about the realities of the novel coronavirus, it’s important that you educate yourself first, said Cassie Brownell, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Reading reliable sources of information, like government websites, is key to combating misinformation and correcting any misconceptions kids may have, Brownell said.

“Kids are seeing empty store shelves or people in masks… and they’re worried about that or they’re worried about their own family getting sick,” she said.

“I think we need to create a really open space where we can talk about the facts, correct misinformation and be honest.”

Brownell suggests opening the conversation around COVID-19 by asking your children what they know about the virus. That way, you can gauge their knowledge level and answer questions.

The amount of information you share with your children and the way you deliver it will depend on their age, said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor in the psychiatry department at the University of British Columbia.

READ MORE: Canadians should postpone, cancel non-essential foreign travel amid coronavirus

If a child is young and has a limited understanding of what’s going on, you don’t need to share detailed information with them. But if your child is in school and is hearing about the virus from friends and on the news, you should talk to them about it, he said.

“I would point out to them that we know, in most cases, it’s usually mild,” Taylor said.

“And the best thing to do to keep yourself safe is to wash your hands, cover your coughs and try and keep your fingers away from your face, rather than getting caught up in probabilities of death and so on.”

It is also vital that parents act rationally and do not panic, he said.

“If you’re a young child and your parents are terrified, rushing out, stocking up… that’s going to inflate the child’s anxiety level.”

Model positive behaviour

Just like panicking does not help children, it’s important parents model positive health behaviour, too.

This includes washing hands, coughing or sneezing into elbows and not touching faces — things health officials urge people to do to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

READ MORE: Pregnant people not at increased risk for coronavirus, experts say

While missing school and cancelling sporting events may be upsetting, experts said parents should remind kids why they are important measures. Letting kids know that their own positive actions can help combat the virus will give them a sense of control in what can feel like an overwhelming situation.

“Talk about how people are getting ready in case they get sick, and this is a positive thing that people are doing because people are trying to work together as a community,” Brownell said.

Watch for changes in your kid’s mood and limit media exposure

Even if a kid does not tell you they are worried about the novel coronavirus, changes in their behaviour may indicate internalized anxiety.

Taylor said that if a child has an increased amount of tummy aches or headaches, they could be feeling fearful or anxious. If you notice such behaviours, ask your kid how they are doing.

Too much news or information on social media can also be overwhelming, Taylor said, and if it’s making your child anxious, it may be time to turn off devices for awhile.

The important thing to keep in mind, Lapointe said, is stressing to your kids that people are working hard to deal with the novel coronavirus, and you are there to answer any questions they may have. Talking about COVID-19 should not be a one-time occurrence but, instead, an ongoing conversation.

READ MORE: Canadian research team isolates novel coronavirus behind COVID-19

“The bottom line is to act as your child’s north through all of this, communicating the message that the adults — from parents on up to government officials — all have a plan in place and are doing their jobs,” she said.

“This releases the child to rest into the adult’s care without having to take on adult roles.”

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing – very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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