How to have a panic-free conversation with your kids about the coronavirus

Here are some pointers for keeping kids — and yourself — calm

An epidemic can be a scary time for parents. With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the coronavirus a public health emergency on Thursday, and the U.S. reporting its first case of person-to-person transmission of the virus the same day, 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 kids. 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 behavior. It's important that parents and caretakers understand the effect their own behavior 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.

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? As of Jan. 30, there were just six confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the U.S. — in California, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington. By comparison there are more than 7,700 confirmed cases in China, with all regions affected. Most of the 170 people who have died so far are known to have already been in poor health, and all but four of the fatalities were from Hubei province, where the outbreak began. No one in the U.S. has died. Sharing this information should help reassure kids that there is no immediate risk to themselves, their friends, or their family.

3. Explain what efforts are being made to contain the virus. Chinese authorities appear to have acted quickly. Travel in and out of the affected areas has been restricted, and scientists are working to develop a vaccine. In the U.S., the government is carefully monitoring the situation and — despite the WHO announcement — officials at the Department of Health and Human Services say the risk to the public remains low. A federal taskforce is leading the American response to the coronavirus so kids should be confident any confirmed cases will be isolated and treated quickly.

4. Finally, 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 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 easy habits for kids 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 kids so focussing 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 and make sure your child understands that you will do everything in your power to keep them — and yourself — safe.

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