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How to Talk to Your Anxious Child About the Coronavirus

Showing anxiety who is the boss during this time of uncertainty.

It is hard to go anywhere these days without hearing someone talk about the novel coronavirus. Here are some of the things I have heard over the past week:

“We are all about to die.”Teenager leaving a message on her mother’s cell phone in the middle of the school day.

“I’m sorry we are all out of masks.” —Employee at the neighborhood drug store. (I hadn’t asked for one, by the way.)

“I heard if you get the coronavirus you die right away.” —Child in my carpool to my daughter.

“Make sure you are washing your hands and the kids' hands a lot more right now.” —My mother.

“World Health Organization declares a public health emergency.” —The evening news.

How can you not feel anxious? As an adult, I feel my anxiety rise over the sheer unknown about this virus. Add to the fact that all over Vancouver (where I live), people are wearing masks, despite only five known cases in the entire province, way fewer than the flu. If adults are anxious, imagine how our children feel. Now throw into the mix that you happen to be raising an already anxious child. What is a parent to do?

1. Listen.

It’s important to really listen to your children about what they have heard, what they understand, and what questions they have. Sometimes it is hard to know how much our children have really been exposed to by the media, at school, and by their peers. Depending on their ages, children will integrate and understand information differently. For example, young children will often have magical thinking about what they don’t understand, and so if there are gaps in their knowledge, they will fill them in with erroneous information. Find a quiet time to sit down with your children and really listen to what they know already.

2. Model a calm, measured approach.

When you experience turbulence on an airplane, the pilot often comes onto the loudspeaker and says confidently, “We are experiencing a bit of turbulence, fasten your seatbelt, and this should pass shortly.” If the pilot sounds scared, shaky or unsure, you would feel the same! Your children look to you for cues on how to respond to various situations. Spend some time reflecting on the message you are conveying with your actions. Taking reasonable hygiene precautions and carrying on confidently with your day is the best approach.

3. Provide information, not excessive reassurance.

Once you have a firm understanding of what your child knows already, you want to provide information and correct misinformation. This must be done in a developmentally appropriate, honest, and clear way.

Be prepared for this conversation and make sure you are up on the facts. The World Health Organization website is a good place to look. Some facts you may want to consider sharing include: the majority of the people who are sick live in China, there are very few cases in North America, people who are most likely to get sick are people who work with animals (like people who work in live animal markets) and people who care for people who are already sick. We can keep ourselves safe by using good hygiene habits like washing hands for 20 seconds for soap and water. Very few kids have gotten sick from the novel coronavirus. Finally, adults like government officials, doctors, and scientists are working hard to learn more and to keep us safe.

When you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Information providing is not reassurance giving. The world is uncertain and as parents, we can’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen, including getting sick. (Some children are looking to their parents to provide them with this certainty, which of course we just can’t provide.) If your child is asking many, many, many questions or asking you the same question repeatedly, they are likely seeking reassurance instead of information. The problem is that there is no end and no matter how many times you tell your child, “You won’t get sick,” or “You will be ok,” or “You don’t have to worry about those things,” the more they will look to you to provide that reassurance. It’s a temporary solution that acts as fuel to the bossy anxiety bully’s fire.

4. Show anxiety who's the boss.

So what should you do if your child seems to be continually seeking reassurance about the coronavirus? Acknowledge and empathize with your child’s feelings—“I hear you are feeling very scared about this.” Next, you want to name the questions for what they are—the anxiety bully bossing the child and you around. You then go on to say that you can no longer provide reassurance because you don’t want to allow the bully to boss you around.

Instead of providing reassurance you can teach your child active coping skills for dealing with anxiety and worries. For example, help your child ask themselves questions to challenge their anxious and unhelpful thoughts and replace them with more realistic and helpful ones. For example, ask your child, “What facts do you know now?” and “How likely is it that what you are worried about will actually happen?” As your children have more practice with these skills, they will become better at asking themselves the questions without having to rely on you.

If you notice your child’s worry beginning to interfere with their functioning, for example, it is affecting their sleep or the school attendance, seek help with a professional. For now, I will be engaging in some active coping of my own during this uncertain time!

My helpful thought: There are no known cases of coronavirus near where I live, and for now, I’m going to enjoy going for ice cream with my children.

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