Dr. Meg Meeker is a favorite expert of mine pertaining to issues about healthcare for children. Her approach is based on solid experience dealing with her own pediatric patients and their families. Please read her comments on this pandemic.

President Trump has just declared a national emergency and announced a new round of efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s imperative that parents talk to their children, whether in first grade or in college, about this illness. Our sons and daughters are hearing the conversations of others. They’re hearing news reports. Some of the details out there are accurate — while many are inaccurate, lack context, or are downright frightening for the youngest. Tell your child that yes, discrepancies exist. And insist your child should come to you first with any questions. As a parent, you’ll do your very best to get the most accurate answers and to share that information with your family.

The first thing you need to do is remain calm — even if you don’t feel calm. Above all, do not communicate fear.

When we hear in the media about a global pandemic or an infection getting out of control, we cringe. But just because a virus may become ubiquitous does not mean it will be life-threatening across the board. So far the elderly and those with compromised immune systems have been the most vulnerable to this virus — and yes, people have died. If your child is healthy, you should not be alarmed. If you feel relaxed and confident, your child will pick up on this and feel more relaxed as well.

Second, teach your children about the specifics of this virus.

Tell them that a virus can’t be killed with antibiotics, so the best we can do is avoid getting COVID-19 while the experts work on testing, treatments, and vaccines. Younger children might be especially fascinated to see a picture of what the virus actually looks like. That picture may make the virus much less scary for young children. Talk about how the virus spreads. This will help children take smart precautions to avoid it.

Third, reassure children that if they do get the virus, they’ll probably just feel like they have a cold. 

The overwhelming majority of children and young adults who will get COVID-19 will have cold-like symptoms or not even know they have it. However, young people may fear that if they get it, they will die. Clearly explain the symptoms — and let them know that if they do become infected, their body will be able to handle it.

Fourth, find out what your children are thinking about the issue.

Many children feel afraid of the coronavirus but won’t let on about that because they’re embarrassed. Young boys may appear unconcerned; they don’t want to look like “wimps,” so they take on a certain bravado about it. The best way to handle this is to ask what the teachers are saying about the virus and what their friends are saying. Ask them what they are hearing in the news. Once you get them talking about it, casually ask, “What do you think about the coronavirus? Do you ever get scared or see your friends afraid?” Draw them out by asking questions about the people around them. Why? Because children feel safer talking about how others are responding than how they feel personally. Once you get the conversation going, you can ask questions about how they feel and what they believe about the infection, its spread, and more.

Fifth, give them something to do.

One of the best ways to help children feel less vulnerable is to tell them what they can do to avoid getting the virus. The practices are so simple that they may roll their eyes — but parents must emphasize that taking simple steps is the best thing to do. Children should wash their hands with soap long enough to sing “Happy Birthday”; they should frequently use a hand sanitizer (one with more than 60% alcohol) and keep a small bottle of sanitizer in their backpack; they should sneeze into a bent elbow — or better yet, a tissue they immediately throw away. They should avoid sleepovers until the virus passes; they should avoid getting too close to friends who appear to have colds; and they should not drink from friends’ water bottles or share food with them. This is not about shunning other people, of course. It’s about practicing smart measures to stay safe. It’s important that parents and caregivers model these same procedures.

Sixth, live as normally as possible.

With all of this said, try to maintain a normal family routine. While the precautions we all need to take against coronavirus may appear overwhelming, they really aren’t. They’re fairly easy to incorporate into the course of our days. Families can avoid crowds without making an issue of it. Go to local grocery stores rather than large box stores. Let children know that any changes they’re making in their routines right now are likely temporary. Whenever you can find something fun for your children to do that doesn’t involve being around a lot of people, do it. Keep children busy and moving. Until we are informed by our public health leaders that our children need more precautions than I have outlined here, keep them doing what they normally do as best you can.


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