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Coronavirus: How to speak to young children about the risks


By Jenny Stallard

Whether they overhear something on the news, someone talking about it, or succumb to playground chatter, it's near-impossible to keep your young children from hearing about coronavirus.

The first case has now been confirmed in Gibraltar and Scotland, and the UK coronavirus toll continues to climb. As adults, we are now aware of how to protect ourselves, including frequent and careful handwashing, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue (not your hand) when you sneeze, and putting used tissues in the bin immediately.

But for children, fact and fiction can easily blend. And while some might hear of deaths on the radio news travelling to school in the car, others might have actually been sent home from school or had trips cancelled.

"The younger the child, the more difficult it will be for them to understand the coronavirus," says child psychologist Dr Michele C. McDowell. "This is for a number of reasons. Children particularly below the age of 11 are at a critical age for developing their emotional intelligence. During this age range, they are developing the skills of emotional regulation, progressing from black and white thinking (for example, something's either wrong or right), to developing an understanding of emotional nuances and the knowledge that how they feel impacts on the interpretation of a situation.

"During this stage of development, children are learning to regulate their emotions. This is why we often find that younger children can experience extreme emotions, feeling happy one minute and anger or frustration the next. They are learning to regulate and understand emotions during each interaction."

So, hearing about deaths, or new cases, can make kids feel confused and anxious. Telling them things are fine and shielding them from the truth can actually be more harmful than some honest answers, experts agree. Here's how to deal with their questions and worries...

DO discuss it
"If your children raise the topic, give some time to explore what they've heard about coronavirus. If you don't have time right then, arrange a time together when you can fully discuss how they feel, and check their knowledge. Please don't just respond with 'don't worry it'll be fine'," says McDowell.

DON'T lie...
"Children will hear information from a range of places, such as their friends, playground, news, social media. Parents should aim to provide age-appropriate information, such as 'it is true there's a nasty bug around that's a bit like flu, and is making people feel unwell - and yes, some people have died'," says McDowell. "Align it with topics they already know about, like a cold or flu, but also say this is a little different because it is new, and people are finding out about it. Check with them they understand by asking them to tell you back in their own words. Ask them if they have any other questions about it."

DO let them know it's an open topic
Today, their question might be about handwashing, tomorrow it could be whether they are at risk. "Let them know they can talk about it again and as many times as they like," advises McDowell. "Use it as an emotional learning opportunity, by talking about feelings and emotions that come up around the news, such as sadness and worry."

DO keep things matter-of-fact
"It's important to model a non-panicked response and give information in a matter-of-fact way," says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. "Begin by saying that viruses have always been around, and that this is not something to be scared of. A lot of people every year suffer from the flu, and whilst it's important to take precautions (such as washing hands regularly), this isn't something that is likely to harm them."

DO use your own judgement to talk about deaths
Being honest with a child who wants to talk about deaths they've heard of depends on the age of the child and their own nature, adds Touroni. Be aware if it could cause them anxiety.

"It's hard for younger children to understand nuances, so I would refrain from mentioning death. Likewise, if a child is older and prone to anxiety, it's important not to instil any further sense of fear. If you do decide to tell them, then qualify it with the fact that it's only likely to end in fatality if a person is already unwell or has a weakened immune system."

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