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How to talk to kids about the coronavirus, according to Long Island experts

Travelers wear protective masks at Jorge Chavez International

Travelers wear protective masks at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima last week. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Ernesto Benavides

Social worker Theana Cheliotes runs a socialization group at Mepham High School in Bellmore, and it was no surprise to her that a recent meeting revolved around a beast that has spread its tentacles into kids' imaginations: the coronavirus.

The teens were wondering if they are all going to get sick and if they could die, Cheliotes says. In addition to asking their teachers and counselors about COVID-19, kids as young as preschool may be asking questions at home. Parents should downplay the frenzy and emphasize the precautions, experts say.

“The reality of the situation is that kids are going to be hearing about it,” says Nicole Matthews, a social worker in the Half Hollow Hills School District in Dix Hills. Parents need to walk the fine line between educating kids and scaring them.

“The most important thing for children is to feel calm and that their parents will be taking care of them,” says Joan Kuchner,  retired director of Child and Family Studies in the psychology department of Stony Brook University.

Here’s how experts suggest striking a balance when tackling a subject causing anxiety across the globe:

If adults in the house have been talking about the virus, assume children have overheard. “If they start picking up bits of things, they may become more alarmed because their imagination makes it worse than it is," Kuchner says. Keep your own anxiety in check while explaining the situation simply, Matthews advises.

Realize that information is power. "This is certainly a public health issue that should be communicated to everyone no matter what the age,” says Anthony Santella, associate professor of public health at Hofstra University. “Giving young people age-appropriate, medically accurate information is the best thing we can do to keep the population healthy. The kind of silver lining of this happening now is we are in winter, in the midst  of cold and flu season, and the message holds true for cold and flu.”

But turn off the TV when children are home. “It’s not a good idea to have all these news broadcasts running. If children hear things over and over again, it escalates and make them feel there is an immediate danger to them,” Kuchner says.

Keep answers simple. Children might notice people wearing masks in public, they might have heard about people’s vacations or the Olympics possibly being canceled, friends might have told them that some schools are closing. Children want to know how things will affect them, Kuchner says. “Always answer children’s questions honestly but simply,” Kuchner says. “Don’t enlarge the conversation.”

Make sure you communicate the facts. Older children may want to know more. "One shouldn’t engage a young person in the conversation until they know at least the basics for themselves," says Christopher Regini, a seventh-grade science teacher at West Hollow Middle School in Melville. "While the virus is certainly serious, it needs to be approached from a rational perspective routed in fact and understanding. I try to give the kids statistics that are familiar to them. I explain that the flu has affected far more people and is responsible for many more deaths in the U.S. than the coronavirus is worldwide. Those who are the most at risk are still older individuals with previously existing health conditions."

Reassure children about relatives. “We have a heterogeneous population on Long Island. Kids may have family members in different countries, families with ties to China or Italy. Or maybe they have a parent who has to travel overseas for work,” Kuchner says.

Emphasize basic hygiene. “Even a 3-year-old can be taught appropriate infection control,” says Dr. Sharon Nachman, division chief of pediatric infectious disease at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. They can learn to wash hands, to cough and sneeze into the crooks of their elbows, and to avoid touching their faces, Nachman says. Nachman says when she talked to a group of preschoolers recently, she put flour on her hands and then clapped them, sending a spray of powder, to help the children understand how a sneeze spreads germs. “These simple demonstrations to even the youngest of our children can be effective,” she says. 

Review things kids can do to feel more in control. Older kids who are nervous can carry hand sanitizer, use disinfectant wipes on their cellphones and take other precautions that help them feel in control, Cheliotes says. "I also try to emphasize the things they can do so they feel that they have some power over the situation as opposed to feelings helpless," Regini says. "I make them aware of their use of shared devices throughout the school such as class sets of laptops or eating surfaces in the cafeteria."

Remind children about the quality of U.S. medical care. They may ask whether they, their parents or their grandparents will get sick or even die. Reassure them that here we can quickly see a doctor who knows how to treat respiratory infections. “Deaths in other countries cannot necessarily translate to a death rate here,” Nachman says.

Consider whether to broach the subject of racism. “The more social aspects of the disease are, in my mind, a little more delicate,” Santella says. “We know that kids, adolescents and young adults can be particularly cruel to people when they want to be.” Remind kids that just because the disease started in China, it is not their fault.

Keep the dialogue going. “This is a global health problem that’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Santella says. Continue to check in with your children, experts say. 

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