Parents aren’t the only ones anxious about the spread of the coronavirus. If your child feels uneasy about the latest news reports, use these tips to keep her informed without spreading unnecessary fear.

By Nicole Harris
Updated March 10, 2020

It’s easy to understand why you may want to avoid talking about scary topics—such as the novel coronavirus—with your kids. Every parent wants to protect their children from avoidable anxiety. But when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, kids probably already know more about it than parents realize, thanks to playground conversations and constant news reports, says media psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, M.D. And unfortunately, a lot of what they're hearing on a day-to-day basis may not be accurate or up-to-date. 

Just like with so many other heavy topics, it falls on parents to discuss the coronavirus with their kids in a way that eases worry, promotes knowledge, and stops the spread of misinformation. Here are some tips for starting the conversation. 

Do keep them informed.

Having an incomplete picture of this scary-sounding respiratory disease that originated in Wuhan, China might create unease in kids. Clear up the rumors by being an open, honest source of information. You can explain the coronavirus and its origins, then let kids ask questions. This comic-style diagram from NPR might help spark conversation

And be cautious of letting kids consume media without you: "Everyone should be cautious of the sensational media 'hooks' employed to draw eyes, ears, and clicks to news stories about coronavirus," advises Charles Bailey, M.D. medical director for infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. "Kids, in particular, should probably not be consuming such information without an adult present to provide an age-appropriate context and filter out the more anxiety-provoking content."

Don’t become an alarmist.

Kids are sensitive to the anxiety of their parents, says pediatrician Dyan Hes, M.D., founder of Gramercy Pediatrics. So even though you might be worried about the unknowns and unanswered questions regarding coronavirus, try to keep things optimistic for your child. For example, you can say, “Younger people like yourself are less likely to get the disease. And if you do contract it, it’ll probably just be like a cold.” 

Do use age-appropriate language.

Little kids don't understand the words quarantine and transmission, but you can still talk about the coronavirus with them. "Use lively terms like germ and bugs and incorporate animated pictures. Also use very concrete language about how boogers or spit can cause germs to pass to one person or the next," suggests Rosemary Olivero, M.D., division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. "Kids also remember their own illnesses, so referencing those salient examples can be really helpful."

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Don’t make a big deal out of preparations.

If you live in an area with an outbreak, you'll probably stock up on food, cleaning supplies, and other items. But according to Dr. Hes, this could make your child panic. Shield little ones from your family’s preparatory measures, if possible. If they do inquire about the extra toilet paper in the closet, simply say you’re preparing for the entire family being home if schools and offices close. 

Do talk about government response to the coronavirus.

Thanks to efforts from the government and health organizations, the coronavirus isn’t spreading as quickly as it could be. Tell your child about everything that’s being done to combat the disease, like issuing travel warnings for high-risk countries and testing out vaccinations, says Andrea Barbalich, parenting expert and newly appointed Editor in Chief of The Week Junior. Knowing that America has a plan might ease your child’s worries. 

Don't ignore the news about potential school closures.

Schools in Washington state, New York, and Idaho have closed as a precautionary measure. If your kid asks about these closures, say that officials are simply trying to keep everyone healthy—especially people who are most susceptible to the coronavirus, like older adults and those with weakened immune systems, says Dr. Hes. 

Do teach proper hand hygiene.

The best way to prevent the coronavirus is to maintain proper hand hygiene. “Teach your children how to wash their hands using soap and water for at least 15-20 seconds, or how long it takes to sing the ABCs,” recommends Robert Frenck, M.D., medical director, division of infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. This is especially important before eating or touching your face, because bacteria-laden droplets can enter your body through the nose, eyes, and mouth. 

Also teach your children to cough into their arm, throw away used tissues right away, and wipe down communal items (like keyboards) before use. Limiting bacteria exposure can help keep your entire family coronavirus-free. 

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