The coronavirus has caused school closures, and cancellations of extracurricular activities, parties and play dates. These social distancing measures are quickly becoming the new norm for many families, creating a variety of social and emotional challenges for children.
So, how do we help keep our children safe and deal with these challenges during uncertain times?
We talked to Rush pediatric infectious diseases specialist Latania Logan, MD, MSPH, and child psychiatrist Louis Kraus, MD, about how parents can address COVID-19 with their children.
What should parents know about COVID-19 as it relates to children?
“This is a very important question for parents to understand because they are the first line of information for their children,” Logan says. “It's crucial for parents to keep updated on the coronavirus, so their children can fully understand the importance of what is occurring.”
The new virus that is causing alarm is known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2. Before it was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the virus had never been seen in humans.
For most viruses, people will experience mild symptoms. The coronavirus is different because its novel, meaning none of us have ever been exposed to it, so we are all susceptible to infection.
“Children fit into that group of people who are going to have either no symptoms or mild symptoms because they're young, generally healthy and able to get over these viruses quickly,” Logan says.
“We're still learning more, but we tend to refer to children as ‘shedders and spreaders,’ meaning the virus tends to sit in their noses, throats and in their bodies. You won’t necessarily see physical signs that they’re sick but they can certainly carry and spread those germs quite easily.”
Kraus reassures parents that healthy children are at low risk for the coronavirus.
“The risk for healthy children getting sick in any significant way is essentially zero, so parents don’t need to worry about that,” Kraus says. “But they do need to communicate to their children that they're potentially a risk for others to get sick from them.”
What's the best way to teach your kids to wash their hands?
Logan emphasizes that parents need to be more vigilant about their children’s hand hygiene.
“Poor hand hygiene is how these germs spread between people and the environment,” Logan says. “Kids tend not to wash their hands properly or they may not wash their hands at all. One fun way to teach children is to sing a song while they’re washing their hands. Pick a song that takes at least 20 seconds for them to be able to scrub and rub the tops and bottoms of their hands, and in between their fingers.”
She also encourages parents to think about what their children are touching daily.
“At the beginning or end of the day, disinfect any play areas or favorite toys, and make sure your children have washed their hands and continue to sanitize throughout the day,” Logan says. “These actions create a safe zone for children while they are in the home.”
Does the age of the child matter when parents are communicating what's going on with COVID-19?
“At any age, you have to look at what's going on with your children developmentally,” Kraus says. “As the kids get older though, the questions start to increase.”
Kraus provides some advice discussing COVID-19 with children at each phase in life:
Preschool: Preschoolers will follow the lead of their parents. Be sure your emotions are in check first. This group is also used to playdates and being around other children. During social distancing, limit visitors and try to be actively engaged with your children at playtime.
Elementary school: Elementary school kids are going to question what is going on as they notice a change in their routine. Start by answering simple questions and emphasis the importance of family time.
Middle school and high school (teenagers): For teenagers in middle school or high school, they will want to stay up later than usual. Try to keep their sleep schedule consistent as if they were going to school. They will also be watching the news — whether through the television or social media — and will have a better understanding of the content. However, they will push the limits to be with friends. Explain the impact of social distancing and highlight other ways of communicating with friends, such as FaceTime and texting.
“Regardless of the child’s age, parents need to make sure they’re calmly imparting the information that's necessary to their children in a way that's not going to create more stress,” Kraus says. “Kids pick up on parent's anxiety and it's not helpful, so parents need to be tune with their own anxiety.”
A reminder to parents
The safest way to care for your children during this troubling time is to stay on top of cleanliness and take everything one day at a time. Remember to be present with your children and, most important, make sure you and your children are well supported — physically and emotionally.