Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Talking to Kids About COVID-19 Without Freaking Them Out

News spreads faster among kids than any virus.

So, odds are high that any child from elementary school on up has already heard about the latest coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19.

Two Catholic schools in Missouri’s St. Louis County have canceled classes after a father and daughter broke an in-home quarantine, issued by the local health department, to attend a dance at the Ritz-Carlton. The student’s older sister tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from Italy, and the whole family was instructed to remain at home for at least 14 days. (The family hired a lawyer, who said they had never been told to self-quarantine. County Executive Sam Page, and the health department, insist that they had.) In the wake of the news, other area schools sent emails asking students who may have been in contact with the younger daughter to stay at home.

Anger in the community is rampant, and rumors and anxiety will only intensify as the outbreak continues to spread.

In hard-hit areas of the country, schools have already been closing, and some colleges have canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester.

So, how should parents discuss this rapidly changing public health crisis with their children without freaking them out?

First and foremost, don’t talk to them when you’re feeling panicked yourself. I learned this the hard way when my daughter told me I had been talking about the coronavirus outbreak a lot, and that it was stressing her out.

One way to process an underlying sense of anxiety is to identify the legitimate worries exacerbating it. For parents of children who have chronic health conditions or who are immunocompromised, there is the primary fear of wanting to keep them healthy and safe -- even though the infection rate for children has been low -- and having to rely on others to follow rules designed to protect the most vulnerable. Others live with or near elderly relatives, who are very susceptible to the virus.

Even for those with healthy families, the specter of extended school closures provokes anxiety. A significant number of working parents don’t have paid sick leave -- or any leave at all. Some depend on school lunches to help feed their children. And plenty of people cannot work from home, and have no child care options during the day.

All of these concerns can feel like underlying threats to basic survival -- even if the individual health risks remain low.

Then there are practical concerns: What would a quarantine with children at home look like? How long would it last? Would we still be able to get the food, medicine and supplies we need?

And it’s not just school schedules potentially being disrupted. Parents must ask themselves: What should we do about travel plans already paid for? What about special events with large groups of people, like weddings? How might this impact AP tests, graduations, extracurriculars?

Many parents are planners, and panic is fueled by uncertainty. Considering the extent of the unknowables in this scenario, it’s understandable to feel some anxiety -- especially for those already prone to worry. That’s partly why there’s been such a run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We’ve hyper-focused on a few things we can do: buying disinfectant and washing our hands so much that no moisturizer can keep up.

After acknowledging the legitimacy of these concerns, however, the next step is to remind ourselves to keep a sense of perspective -- and to instill the same in our kids. Schedule disruptions and event cancelations are minor, compared to serious illness or death. I’ve told my kids that sacrificing some personal desires can possibly help save other people’s lives. We can work for the common good, while acknowledging the feelings of disappointment that may arise.

Children pick up on our emotional cues, so if we respond to the prospect of a school closure as simply an inconvenience, and not a crisis, it helps calm kids’ fears.

The nonprofit Child Mind Institute suggests talking to children in an age-appropriate way about coronavirus, reassuring them about the steps being taken to keep them safe, and sticking to routines when possible.

Of course, it’s important to remind children about washing their hands frequently and keeping a distance from anyone who is coughing or seems sick. For my part, I’m having my kids take extra vitamin C to help boost immunity, buying more disinfecting wipes to clean smartphones at night, and taking more walks outside to help reduce stress.

It should also go without saying that if the health department advises you to self-quarantine, for God’s sake, follow their instructions.