In Depth

How to talk to children about the coronavirus

Pointers for keeping both kids and yourself calm from The Week Junior editor-in-chief Anna Bassi

An epidemic can be a scary time for parents. With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the coronavirus a global emergency last Thursday and the UK reporting its first cases of the virus a day later, it’s only natural to feel a sense of unease.

But take a deep breath. Many children are already worried by what they’re hearing about the outbreak, and although the daily updates about the virus are alarming, it’s really important to remember the impact these headlines can have on young people. To save them (and yourself) from unnecessary anxiety, there are a few simple things that you can say and do.

Here are some pointers for keeping kids calm and holding a panic-free conversation about coronavirus.

1. Be aware of your own behaviour

It’s important that parents and caretakers understand the effect their own behaviour can have on children. If you’re visibly upset or react in a way that suggests you’re fearful, they’ll take their cues from you. Just remember to stick to what we know about the outbreak, rather than fixating on worst-case scenarios.

2. Tell them the facts

Scary headlines attract attention and help sell newspapers but they don’t always tell the whole truth: ensuring you’re armed with facts will help keep coronavirus conversations calm, considered and constructive. So what do we know and how much should you share with a child?

Begin with the basics. Explain that coronavirus is a common virus across the world: the common cold and flu are both caused by types of coronavirus. This new (novel) form of the virus was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year. Symptoms include fever and a cough. A majority of people who are infected are expected to experience mild symptoms and make a full recovery within a week.

As of 3 February, there were just two confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the UK – both of them in York. These two patients are receiving specialist medical care. By comparison, more than 17,000 cases have been confirmed in China, with all regions affected. Most of the 362 people who have died so far in China are known to have been in poor health already. No one in the UK has died. Sharing this information should help reassure children that there is no immediate risk to themselves, their friends or their family.

3. Explain what efforts are being made to contain the virus

Travel in and out of the affected areas has been restricted, and scientists are working to develop a vaccine. The UK government is carefully monitoring the situation. Health experts are assessing travellers arriving in UK airports from China, and the Chinese authorities have banned anyone with symptoms of infection from leaving China.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Our world-class NHS is well prepared and we are doing everything we can to protect the public.” Children should be confident that any confirmed cases in Britain will be isolated and treated quickly.

4. Offer practical advice

For the time being, the easiest way to reduce the risk of being affected by viruses of any sort (including the common cold) is to use tissues to cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze; keep hands clean by washing them regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based rub; and avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth. It is also wise to avoid anyone displaying symptoms such as a fever or a cough. These are simple common-sense habits for children to adopt, and should help them feel as though they’re able to exert some control over their circumstances.

Events like this can be very scary for children, so focusing on the known facts rather than fixating on worst-case scenarios will allow your child to process the situation and keep it in perspective. However worried you may feel, do your best to keep your concerns to yourself, focus on the simple things you can do to control events, and make sure your child understands that you will do everything in your power to keep them – and yourself – safe.

Anna Bassi is editor-in-chief of The Week Junior, the award-winning weekly news magazine for eight– to 14-year-olds

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