As news headlines warn of a worldwide pandemic around the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, it’s not surprising that many people are on edge — and with all the unknowns, children are especially vulnerable to worry.
Parents and teachers have an important role to play in reassuring kids, says Dr. Shawn Sidhu, associate professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and training director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Program.
For starters, it’s important to emphasize that children are the least susceptible to the worst effects of the respiratory illness. And most people who do experience symptoms likely have something else.
“We’re still in the cold season,” he says. “A lot of people are going to be getting sick, and a very, very small proportion of them are going to have this virus.”
Based on the latest information, “It seems to be that very few kids are getting severe symptoms,” Sidhu says. Those most at risk “seem to be mostly elderly or people with an existing lung problem or people who are immunocompromised.”
But amid the avalanche of alarming media coverage, that message might get lost, he says.
“The main thing with kids is you’re going to want to reassure them that they’re safe and that you’re taking precautions,” Sidhu says.
“And even if you do get it, you’ll probably be fine — it’ll just be like any cold you’ve had.”
Sidhu suggests that parents tailor the information they provide to their kids in an age-appropriate fashion. With preschoolers, for example, “we may talk about basic germ theory and hand hygiene.”
Elementary schoolchildren are more likely to have some understanding of the disease and its effects. “For them, it’s really reassuring them that they’re safe,” Sidhu says.
Teenagers offer a unique teachable opportunity. “With high school kids you can draw them into solutions,” Sidhu says. “You could ask, ‘As a class, what would you do?’ You can get them to think creatively about how they would address it.”
Those conversations also offer a chance to talk more generally about health, including nutrition, exercise, drug use and sexual activity, he says.
Sidhu notes that reports of patients succumbing to the coronavirus might upset students who are experiencing an anxiety disorder or serious medical illness — or those who have lost family members. “They’re going to be more at risk, because it’s going to touch a nerve that’s already sensitive,” he says.
Parents should make sure their kids maintain their usual routines. “You really want to keep the activities that give them that structure and something to focus on,” Sidhu says. “It provides something they can control.”
And parents should also be wary of exposing themselves to too much worrisome information and manage their own anxiety about the disease outbreak.
“The important piece is you don’t want to be so consumed that you’re not present with your children,” he says. “Try to turn the 24-hour news cycle off. Try not to get sucked into this paranoia because you’re not going to be able to be there for your kids.”
Sidhu also suggests that rather than anxiously scanning news sites, parents visit an authoritative information source, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once a day to get updates. “There’s no benefit to checking more than once a day,” he says.
Parents and children alike should also focus on healthy, stress-busting behaviors that boost the immune system and lessen the susceptibility to infection, even when exposed to the virus, he says.
These include familiar measures, like frequent and careful hand-washing, but also include eating fruits and vegetables, getting sufficient sleep and exercising regularly.
In the end, Sidhu says, the most important advice is to keep things in perspective. “There’s only so much that we can control,” he says. “But what I can control today is enjoying this moment with my family.”
Michael Haederle is a strategic support manager in the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Communications office in Albuquerque.