How to talk to children about coronavirus without scaring them
New Jersey on Wednesday night announced its first presumptive positive case of the coronavirus in a man in his 30s.
Even before Wednesday, news about the virus was everywhere. There are shortages of hand sanitizer and masks at most stores. Schools and businesses are developing coronavirus action plans and many people are anxious and concerned.
As a result, children are also learning about coronavirus, and not surprisingly, some of them, like their parents and other adults, are nervous.
Steven Tobias, psychologist and director of the Center for Child and Family Development in Morristown, believes it’s important for parents to talk to their children about the virus but he points out that “if you don’t handle this properly, I think all you do is wind up increasing the child’s anxiety.”
He said the first thing parents need to do is deal with their own feelings about coronavirus known as COVID-19.
“Because kids are going to pick up on their parent’s feelings, so if the parent is trying to give a reassuring message while the parents themselves are extremely anxious, all that does is confuse the kid," he said.
Parents have to educate themselves about coronavirus and not rely on social media posts and email ads for products like protective masks because the information that’s presented can be inaccurate or misleading.
Tobias said when the discussion takes place, ask your son or daughter what they know about coronavirus and correct any misinformation.
“It’s also important to address any feelings the child might have about it and to empathize with them, validate the feelings, but then reassure them," he said.
He stressed empathy is important because you can’t tell a child how to feel.
“If they’re anxious, you can’t just say don’t be anxious. If they’re scared, you don’t say there’s nothing to be scared of, just say I understand this can be a scary thing but then reassure them, tell them they’re safe and the risk is very small.”
He suggested you should also discuss with your child what they can do to stay healthy because that will serve to empower them.
“One of the scariest things is when people don’t have a sense of control. When this thing is happening and there’s nothing we can do about it," he said.
Tobias said it’s important to remind your kid that the best way to avoid getting sick is to take care of yourself and then go over routine things like washing your hands, eating healthy and getting enough sleep.
He noted that sometimes it’s easier for the parent and the child to get these messages from a trusted authority, so if you’re having trouble with this conversation, “I think it pays to take a visit to the pediatrician and have the pediatrician discuss it.”
Tobias does not recommend trying to tell your child to avoid contact with other children at school because it’s not realistic.
“We don’t want to make kids paranoid. We don’t want to say don’t touch doorknobs, don’t touch somebody else, don’t touch somebody else’s desk. Instead focus on general health rules.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the latest information about COVID-19 cases in New Jersey.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com