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Talking with Children about Covid-19: Tips for Parents and Caregivers

Dr. Forrer discusses tips for parents and caregivers on how to talk with children about Covid-19.
Talking with Children about Covid-19: Tips for Parents and Caregivers
Amy Forrer, MD
Amy Forrer, MD is with Emerson Hospital and Emerson Family Medicine in Maynard. 

Learn more about Amy Forrer, MD

Caitlin Whyte: Lately, it feels like every time I turn on the TV or radio or even open my phone, I'm met with another story about COVID-19 and Coronavirus. In fact, I spent most of my day yesterday canceling an upcoming flight, talking with friends about their travel plans, and if and when to stockpile supplies, but with fear and anxiety sparked in so many of us adults we might forget to think about how kids are dealing with news of the virus. Joining us today is Dr. Amy Forrer who will guide us through talking to children about COVID-19. Dr. Forrer is a Family Medicine Physician with Emerson Hospital and Emerson Family Medicine Maynard. She is Board Certified in both Internal Medicine and Pediatrics and treats both adults and children. This is Health Works Here the Podcast from Emerson Hospital. I'm Caitlin Whyte. Dr. Forrer, thank you so much for joining us during what I'm sure is a very busy time over at Emerson. Let's jump right into it. What are the most important things to keep in mind when speaking with children about a public health emergency?

Dr. Forrer: Well, thank you for having me. It really is important to take time to talk to your children when there's a public health emergency. If you stay calm and reassuring, this can be very helpful for all ages. It's important to answer their questions and be honest and accurate and this can help alleviate fear. Reassure your children that the medical community is prepared and here to help. And scientists are working around the clock to fight this disease. Avoid language that may blame others, including cultures and countries and use words and concepts that your child will understand based on their age and development. Spending time talking with your child communicates that you are available to them. And so if they have questions or concerns in the future, they'll know that you're available.

Host: So what are some tips that we can give children that they can do to stay healthy and prevent the spread?

Dr. Forrer: We need to teach our children to wash their hands appropriately. We need to teach them to use soap and water and take 20 seconds to wash their hands. Younger children may want to learn to sing a song that will assure appropriate time has been spent. When soap and water aren't available, we can use hand sanitizer at regular intervals throughout the day. These regular intervals may involve when there's a change in location or before eating. We should teach our children to cough and sneeze into tissues or their elbows and if your child is sick, keep them home and avoid others who may be sick. Take the time to explain to your child that there are new actions at school to help people stay healthy. These include increased hand washing and cancellations of gatherings and events. Parents should also be aware and adhere to travel advisories.

Host: So what if my child is really concerned to the point that they maybe don't want to leave the house in general?

Dr. Forrer: Sure. You should be watching for signs of anxiety and fear in children. There are various ways that this may present in children based on their age and development. Preschool and kindergarten age children may have regressed behaviors they have previously outgrown. They may be frightened by separation from a parent. They may have tantrums or difficulty sleeping. Older children, seven to 10 years old may feel sad, mad or afraid. Making time to talk with older children is important because there may be misinformation from peers. Preteens and teenagers may act out or become fearful of leaving the home. They may feel overwhelmed by strong emotions and have difficulty talking. Try to stick to normal routines as much as possible and let children play outside and just be children. Model behavior that is reassuring as children will pick up on our cues. Remind them the family is taking precautions to keep everyone healthy at our home and in our community. It is really important to limit exposure to news and screens as too much information and repetitive information can lead to anxiety. If you're truly concerned about your child, reach out to your pediatrician.

Host: What if another scenario, my child is fixated on things like if the schools will close, if their favorite activities will be canceled, what life in the future is going to look like? What should I do then?

Dr. Forrer: Sure. It's important to reassure your child like all public health emergencies. This will be temporary. Explain that these disruptions are important measures to help slow the spread of the virus and respond in a way that acknowledges and validates their feelings. For example, say to your child, I understand you're upset and this is frustrating. Reiterating that these disruptions that are new to them are to maintain the community's health. Providing ongoing reassurance that life will resume as normal, can be very helpful.

Host: You know, for some COVID-19 has reached their community, their hometown, and this could increase children's concerns. What should they do?

Dr. Forrer: It is important to remain calm and to continue to provide reassurance, maintain normal routines as much as possible, being there for your child to answer questions and provide accurate information. And this is a time to teach your child to take action that supports the community. For example, offer to drop off supplies, provide additional food, and check on elderly neighbors. This is a time to support each other and to build resilience.

Host: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Forrer hopefully we'll be able to put some children as well as adults at ease during this uncertain time. That was Dr. Amy Forrer, a Family Medicine Physician with Emerson Hospital and Emerson Family Medicine Maynard. If you found this podcast helpful, please share it on all your social channels and you can find more just like in our podcast library. This is Health Works Here, the Podcast from Emerson Hospital. I'm Caitlin Whyte. Thanks for listening.