Expert / 16 March, 2020 / Dr Tom York
How To Talk To Your Children About Coronavirus
Everyone is talking about coronavirus. It’s been mentioned in every news bulletin for the last month. People are talking about their plans for future with the necessary disclaimer of ‘well, it depends on what happens with coronavirus’.
Everyone knows someone who’s recently been on holiday to Italy and someone who’s off work or school with a cough. Rumours and misinformation have been circulating to such an extent that social media platforms have taken a stand to direct people towards reliable information rather than facilitate click-bait links to scaremongering fake articles.
Talking to kids about the coronavirus
Children are often exposed to this information as much as adults, yet they lack the aptitude to discern what to believe and how to process it. So, they turn to you, their reliable care-giver, for answers to questions which you almost certainly didn’t even consider just a few weeks ago.
It’s worth mentioning that COVID-19 is very recent problem, therefore information about it and statistics relating to it are changing every day. It has recently been classified as a pandemic and governments are taking increasingly drastic measures to help kerb the spread.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, some of which infect humans and tend to cause symptoms in the respiratory system. COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus but I will be using the terms interchangeably.
COVID-19 has only very recently started affecting humans. Because it’s so new, not very much is known about it. Usually it just makes people unwell for a few weeks with flu like symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, temperature, shortness of breath and diarrhoea. However, the major concern is that it seems to cause more deaths than the flu with mortality rates between 10 and 20 times higher.
Be prepared for your children to ask these questions on the coronavirus
If your children haven’t asked you about it already, they’re very likely to in the near future. It’s important to be prepared for these questions, to know some of the facts and to be able to communicate with your children in a way that doesn’t cause too much distress.
- If a child is mature enough to ask a question, then they’re mature enough to deserve an answer. The answer may be simplified but children have a fairly good radar for detecting when they’re being hoodwinked. By answering questions truthfully you can build trust with your children and hopefully negate some of the false information they’re likely to encounter.
- Mortality is always a difficult topic to discuss with children. However some of the statistics regarding coronavirus can be quite reassuring. It’s best to use terms like 1 in 100 rather than percentages or fractions which children are less likely to understand. No child under the age of 9 has died from coronavirus. As the country enters higher states of panic, this is a statistic which should be very reassuring for children and parents alike. The chance of dying for anyone between 10 and 40 is only 2 in 1000. Less than 7 people in 1,000,000 in the UK have coronavirus.
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- It’s important to explain that elderly people are especially vulnerable. People over the age of 80 have a 15 in 100 chance of dying from coronavirus which increases is they have pre-existing medication conditions like heart disease or diabetes. You don’t necessarily need to share the scary statistics with your children but reinforce the idea that grandma and grandpa are fit and well but are still being extra careful just in case.
- Children like to feel empowered so by explaining how viruses spread and what they can do to help stop them spreading can help children feel in control.
The importance of washing their hands
It’s not known exactly how coronavirus spreads but the sensible assumption is that it’s transmitted via air droplets like other respiratory viruses. It’s possible it may also be passed on via urine or faeces. The air droplets can either be transmitted directly if someone close-by coughs or sneezes in your direction and doesn’t cover their mouth. Air droplet can also land on surfaces and you might catch the virus if you then touch the surface and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Explain the best way to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus is to regularly wash your hands. Many schools now are encouraging hand washing throughout the school day. Washing hands with soap and water or with alcohol gel helps to kill the virus. Try not to touch your face. Don’t stand too close to anyone coughing or sneezing and encourage everyone to cover their mouths and then wash their hands when they do so. This is all good general advice to help stop the spread of any respiratory infection, not just coronavirus
Coronavirus: will my children’s school close?
- Talk of school closures and football matches being cancelled can be quite scary for children as their day to day life starts to be affected by measures to stop the spread. You could explain that these things are being done just to be extra safe and so that we can slow down the spread of infection so that there are enough doctors and hospital beds to care for the people that do become unwell.
Is there a cure for coronavirus?
- There is no cure at the moment. Work is being done to develop a vaccine but this is likely to be many months away at the least. However, children can be reassured that only 1 in 5 people who catch coronavirus are so unwell that they have to go to hospital and although there is no cure, people in hospital can recover from coronavirus with the help of doctors and nurses.
Don’t pretend you have all the answers
- It’s important not to pretend you have all the answers. There are many aspects of the coronavirus outbreak that no one knows the answer to. False reassurance can lead to a breakdown of trust in the long run so it’s best to admit when things are unknown. As with many of the scary parts of life, you can empathise that you also hope they won’t happen, that the chances are very low and that you’ll do all you can as a parent to stop them.
- There have been cases of people being persecuted due to being of Chinese or Italian heritage. Help your children avoid being part of this by explaining that anyone can get coronavirus and that if someone isn’t coughing or sneezing then it’s very unlikely they will either have or transmit coronavirus, regardless of their ethnicity.
Keep a balanced perspective
- Some children with anxious or OCD tendencies might be especially sensitive to frightening news stories or hygiene advice. Try and keep a balanced perspective and reinforce the very low chance they will catch coronavirus and the hard work everyone is doing to keep it that way. Encourage them to avoid touching their face and remember to wash their hands but try and allow them lead their normal lives as much as possible.
It’s a difficult time for parents with children who have an awareness of the rising concern over coronavirus, but it’s important not to let the fear of infection become disproportionate to the threat. Set an example to your children, follow any guidance from public health, try and source only reliable information for yourself and hopefully, if everyone does what they can to stop the spread, the coronavirus outbreak will soon be just one of the many viruses which have come and gone.
Dr Tom York, father of one and one of hundreds of GPs at the UK’s leading GP on demand service www.GPDQ.co.uk
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