What to say to kids about the coronavirus

Bethany Ao
The Philadelphia Inquirer

When federal health official Nancy Messonnier announced that Americans should begin preparing for “significant disruption” to their routines due to spreading coronavirus infections, the news spread instantly across the internet and television. And that “significant disruption,” she explained in the Feb. 25 news conference, could include closing schools – a sure way to draw any child’s attention.

By now, most kids have almost certainly heard about the virus – and what they’re gathering may be more myth than fact. How can parents talk to their children about coronavirus without alarming them, but still conveying that it’s a serious situation? Craig Shapiro, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, shared some tips to keep kids safe and lessen anxiety.

Shapiro said parents should talk to their child about coronavirus in a quiet environment.

“That way you can focus on the questions your child has and have a very calm conversation,” he said. “A good time might be at the end of the day, but not right before they’re about to go to bed.”

During the conversation, Shapiro said, parents should assess what their kids already know from their teachers, friends, or the news. He said that kids often know more than their parents think, and it’s important to find out where kids are in their understanding of the virus.

“Let them guide the conversation,” he said. “Let them ask questions, and don’t offer an overwhelming amount of information. It’s important to make sure you’re talking at the level of the child. The words you’re using may be different depending on their age and understanding of what’s going on.”

One key component of the conversation should be making sure that the child knows it’s OK to ask questions at any time, Shapiro said. Any conversation should be an ongoing one, as things are changing constantly.

“It’s important to convey that there are scientific experts, doctors, nurses, health-care providers, as well as you as their parent, working to make sure we all stay safe from this virus,” Shapiro said. “Make sure you have as much factual information as possible.”

It’s also a good idea to be prepared with other resources from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and KidsHealth, an educational resource from the Nemours Foundation, he said. That way, parents can answer questions accurately.

Shapiro said it’s important to point out that kids are not as affected by the virus as older people. “It’s more mild in (kids),” he said. “Older people can become very sick and have died from this virus, but right now, in this country, kids are very safe and should not be worried about getting sick.”

But also stress that for most people, including older folks who might include your child’s beloved grandparents, coronavirus produces a mild illness that resolves in a couple of weeks, just like standard flu.

“For most people, getting the virus may just feel like a cold or a flu with coughing, having a fever, and some breathing difficulties,” Shapiro said.

A conversation about coronavirus can be a good opportunity to talk about how proper personal hygiene is a powerful weapon against infections like this one, Shapiro said. Vaccines are being tested for future use against coronavirus, but for now, kids’ own behavior is the best protection.

“Remind your kids to wash their hands frequently, like when they come in from being outside or go to the bathroom or throw something in the garbage,” Shapiro said. “You can give them the ability to protect themselves and others by following these easy things they can do.”

And make sure they know a quick rinse-off won’t do. Tell them to hum the “Happy Birthday” song to themselves twice as they thoroughly lather their hands (with the tap off, of course), then rinse off and dry well.

If schools close, Shapiro said, kids should know the best sources of information are their parents.

“You can let them know that the closing of schools may be necessary in the future, but right now, there are no plans for that,” he said. “But let your children know that when that happens, you’ll be prepared with things that will keep their minds busy, and food and water to keep them fed and hydrated.”