San Jose: How to talk to your kids about the coronavirus
Talking to kids about coronavirus can be challenging, but experts share best practices. From right, health screener Braden Chinn checks the hearing of 5-year-old Hazel L. as part of the Healthy Kids Foundation's free screenings for students in the South Bay. Photo by Katie Lauer.

In a TikTok video, toddlers wearing pajamas sing, “We’re in quarantine. Yes, we’re in quarantine. Germs go away! Germs go away!”

Although adorable, the video exemplifies that even kids are processing the effects of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, especially as they’re cooped up at home with a barrage of information surrounding them.

Some young children refer to the infectious respiratory disease as a “sickness that affects old people,” “sends people to the hospital,” and “is making us stay at home,” said Karina Tamayo, a San Jose licensed marriage and family therapist. Older children associate coronavirus with fear, panic, death, frequent hand washing, and social distancing, she said.

The question is, how do we talk to kids about it?

“It’s like sex,” said Dr. Rebecca Jedel, who has a practice in San Jose. “Talk about it early, often and organically.”

Don’t wait for kids to come to you and make talking about the coronavirus a regular daily conversation, she added. “Just like sex, you don’t want the media to be their education,” Jedel said, “particularly with the teens. You want to be the source and the mediator of their information.”

The highly-infectious disease has taken root in Silicon Valley, one of the hotspots in the country for the most coronavirus cases and deaths. As of Tuesday, county public health officials said 30 people have died and another 890 have tested positive for COVID-19.

San Jose city officials ruffled feathers this week by saying up to 2,000 people could die in a matter of months if nothing is done. Top county leaders disputed those figures, but acknowledged 5,000 to 10,000 more people could become sick.

Children are often bombarded by these messages. That’s why Dr. Andrea J. Ancha, Psy.D, who has offices in Campbell and Florida, suggests asking kids what they know and want to know about COVID-19.

“Leaving kids in the dark may make them worry more and foster confusion,” she said.

To reduce anxiety, Ancha recommends parents remain calm and reassuring while talking about COVID-19. She tells her patients that being sick with COVID-19 is like having the flu and can lead to a fever, cough or a hard time taking deep breaths. Taking her cue from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ancha said it’s OK to tell kids that the disease has made a lot of people sick, but scientists and doctors think most people will recover.

The CDC says to allay children’s anxiety by telling them that even if they do get sick, it doesn’t mean they have COVID-19, as many kinds of germs can lead to illness. Ancha says it’s OK to admit not knowing something.

“Say, ‘Doctors and medical experts are working really hard to figure that out and mom and dad will let you know,’” she said. “It’s more important that they feel they can come to you and seek comfort, rather than your having all the answers.”

Parents can use this as a learning opportunity with their children by looking up information on CDC’s website together.

Children’s fears and concerns often revolve around their health and the health of their loved ones. They have posed tough questions like, “Are we going to get sick?” and asked whether someone they know and love may die, Tamayo said.

Common misconceptions children have shared with her include young children believing that everyone who gets coronavirus will die, only older people can get sick, and this will never end. Teens think since they’re young and healthy, they shouldn’t have to shelter in place.

“If a child has a fear about how the coronavirus is going to affect grandma and grandpa,” said Dr. Ashanti Woods, MD., FAAP, in the Guardian, “a parent should be honest.”

Woods suggests empowering them by saying that they can help by washing their hands, using a tissue or having FaceTime visits with their grandparents.

It’s helpful to avoid feelings of helplessness by using words like “we are participating,” and “we are choosing,” when referring to the shelter-in-place orders. This creates a feeling of control.

When talking to kids about a deadly pandemic like the coronavirus, the World Health Organization says it’s important to be supportive, listen to their concerns and give children extra love and attention.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at mgabbert@comcast.net.

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