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Fear of coronavirus a good time to talk to kids about keeping fears realistic and manageable

The unknowns of a new illness can trigger worries — or provide an opportunity to tackle concerns constructively

A girl wearing a face mask sits on a man’s shoulders as they walk down a street in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. China’s death toll from a new viral disease that is causing mounting global concern rose by 25 to at least 106 on Tuesday as the United States and other governments prepared to fly their citizens out of the locked-down city at the center of the outbreak.
Mark Schiefelbein, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — News reports about a new coronavirus that has sickened thousands and killed at least 100 in China has potential to spark great fear. But experts say it’s also a chance to have a candid talk with kids about simple precautions that can prevent the spread of many illnesses, not just this one.

That’s an especially important conversation to have this time of year, when influenza is also making the rounds without much fanfare, though it kills tens of thousands each year.

Coronavirus is a category of virus so named because under a microscope it has little spikes that look like sun rays. Unlike the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV now causing concern, the category is not new; the impact in humans is typically akin to the common cold, said psychologist and professor Robin H. Gurwitch of Duke University Medical Center. But the new form that appeared abruptly and spread rapidly in Wuhan, China, then beyond among some world travelers, sparks global worry.

What’s tricky isn’t what’s known, but what’s not yet known, said clinical psychologist Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice, research and policy for the American Psychological Association. There are questions about how easily this coronavirus spreads and how dangerous it is for most folks, not just those who are at high risk of complications. And there’s no vaccine yet.

The CDC notes that “there is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity and other features associated with 2019-nCOoV and investigations are ongoing.”

Those questions can amp up anyone’s anxiety level, but especially that of young children and adolescents who have trouble assessing health threats or putting news reports and social media posts in perspective.

“I think because we get a flu shot and recognize that the CDC is doing everything it can to create a vaccine to address that, we feel protected from influenza kinds of things. When coronavirus comes around and we know there’s no shot to address it, our anxiety goes up,” said Gurwitch.

Any unknown — from a a pop quiz to an emerging illness — kicks up anxiety, Bufka said. When there’s potential for danger, it’s even worse.

“Are we anticipating more risk than is really there? At this time, we don’t know. It appears some cases are very serious and some have mild symptoms. How those worries are addressed makes all the difference,” she added.

Talk about it

Word of a new health threat often motivates people to take appropriate precautions, Bufka told the Deseret News. “If it helps us to engage in that kind of behavior, that can be helpful in mitigating the potential for risk. But sometimes we get overwhelmed.”

A first step for parents, teachers and other adults who deal with kids is gathering information. What’s a reasonable amount of risk and has everything been done that can be done to protect health is vital. “We don’t want anxiety to determine (that) we don’t want to interact in the world, which leads to other problems,” said Bufka.

“Read or learn what you need to know. For me, that might be different from what you need to know,” she said. “How will it impact my day-to-day life? Are there cases nearby? The calculation for how to respond is different” depending on your locale.

While it’s known that this coronavirus transmits between people and the impact can be anything from mild to deadly, “that’s the flu, too,” said Bufka, who noted that most people don’t freak out about influenza.

Individuals who struggle to manage anxiety may be more stressed by news reports, she said. But taking precautions, making thoughtful decisions and not allowing oneself to be stuck is a helpful approach that applies to more in life than an emerging health threat.

If a child expresses concern, Gurwitch recommends parents offer reassurance they’re doing everything possible to keep the family healthy, “My job as a caregiver is to make sure we do everything we can to protect you from getting sick, no matter what. That’s why we wash our hands and if they’re not clean, we keep them away from your eyes and nose and mouth. We sneeze into our (elbows).”

One of the best things parents can do for worried kids is find out what they’ve heard, then correct misinformation, the two psychologists agreed.

If kids raise a concern or have questions, talk to them in age-appropriate terms. At any age, start with what they’ve heard or think they know, said Gurwitch. And point out that when they are sick, they go to a doctor or other health care provider.

People also get confused about the difference between possibility and probability — especially kids. “Is it possible I can contract it? Yes. Is it probable? No. The likelihood varies depending on where you live,” said Gurwitch.

Tackling prevention

If a child is not asking questions, this outbreak still offers a great opportunity to review basic prevention practices. These experts recommend:

  • It’s a good idea to take precautions to keep children from getting a virus of any sort, including washing hands, not sharing utensils and drinks, and all those other healthy-living tricks most people learn as very young kids.
  • Go over other healthy habits, like getting lots of sleep and bundling up when it’s cold.
  • And certainly address any illness. Most people will get over a cold or flu on their own in a matter of days, otherwise it’s time to see a doctor. Ditto if symptoms are severe, whether or not it’s coronavirus.
  • Be careful about medicating kids, even with over-the-counter drugs, without checking with a pharmacist or doctor, said Gurwitch. Even OTC meds can be bad in some cases.