TORONTO — School is cancelled, parents are staying home from work, and routines are being disrupted from morning until night.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Canadians of all ages — but for children, who may not be fully aware of the coronavirus or the threat it poses, the sudden societal changes can seem especially strange.
Karen Morgan has seen plenty of curiosity, anxiety and fear in children as the virus has spread around the world and across Canada.
As a teacher and a mother, the Sudbury, Ont woman says she has had to do “a lot of explaining” about the virus at work and at home.
“There is a lot of anxiety that’s created amongst young kids because they see it on the news … and they’re scared ‘Is this going to get me?'” she told CTV News Northern Ontario on March 4, prior to the Ontario government ordering all schools closed until early April.
Sometimes, the questions are more dire. Dr. Dina Kulik, a Toronto-based pediatrician, says her children have asked her if they or their relatives are going to die because of the virus.
“A lot of our kids are being exposed to a lot of scary things — myths, pseudo-science — and we want some element of control there to make sure that they’re staying safe,” she told CTV News Toronto on March 11.
Whatever the age of the child and whatever questions they may have, there are steps parents can take to ensure they are giving their children the information they want without causing unnecessary alarm.
The first step, experts say, is to understand exactly what the child wants to know before risking a response that could fill their head with new information and new fears.
“I think it’s really important to see what your kids know, what are they worried about and what are they asking you,” Kulik said.
BE CLEAR ABOUT FACTS
Part of the fear of COVID-19 comes from the many unknowns about the coronavirus that causes it.
It’s still not clear, for example, exactly how the virus was first transmitted to humans, or how long the pandemic will last.
There are also plenty of known facts that could cause alarm. As of Sunday, the virus has infected at least 156,400 people across more than 130 countries. Cases have been reported in every Canadian province. There have been more than 5,833 deaths around the world.
News coverage and social media platforms are full of images of people wearing protective equipment, ever-growing case numbers, and warnings about what to do to prevent the virus from spreading.
“It’s almost like every hour, there’s something new,” registered psychologist Ganz Ferrance said March 13 to CTV News Edmonton.
“It can be very overwhelming for adults, but also for kids — because they don’t know what’s going on. They really take the cue from us old folks.”
If children have access to screens and the internet, Kulik says parents should be paying close attention to what they’re doing — both because it will keep them informed about what their children may know or think about COVID-19.
“It’s important for us to know which sites our kids are looking at, what Instagram accounts they’re paying attention to, who are they following on TikTok,” she said.
Not all information on social media should been seen as dangerous. Some of it can help parents educate their children, such as one circulating video that uses burning matches to show the effectiveness of self-isolating. When a row of matches starts burning, the one match that is hunkered down in a sort of self-isolation is not affected, preventing the fire from progressing any further.
The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a webpage full of advice for parents on talking to children about COVID-19, including suggestions to avoid stigmatizing language and to remain “calm and reassuring.”
Kulik recommends that parents resist the urge to share every morsel of information they’ve learned with their children.
“You don’t need to be telling them every detail that you know, or don’t even know,” she said.
Instead, she says, parents should stick to basic, easy-to-understand facts, including that most COVID-19 patients only ever present mild symptoms, and that the virus doesn’t seem to be affecting children as severely as adults.
“Talk in a calm way and give them a measure of control — ‘here’s how we prevent the illness,'” she said.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ROUTINE
Public health officials have stressed that COVID-19 prevention is something Canadians of every age group can practise, particularly by washing hands.
Kulik says older children already understand the importance of washing hands to keep germs at bay, and suggests reminding them of proper hand hygiene practises as one way of assuaging their fears about the coronavirus.
“You can model that with your own kids. ‘We’re going to wash for 20 or 30 seconds, that’s what this looks like, I’m going to do it, now you’re going to do it,'” she said.
For younger kids who might not understand the link between washing hands and staying healthy, parents might find it effective to use a visual aid, as in this video.
Experts also suggest regularly reminding children about the importance of coughing and sneezing into their sleeves, and avoiding touching their face.
In addition to developing hygiene habit, Ferrance recommends creating new routines around staying at home. While it may be best for children to spend time indoors, he says, they’re still able to have fun and take their minds off the virus.
“If you are staying home … tonight’s a good night for movie night, or play some board games,” he said.
“Make it as normal as possible, under the circumstances.”
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