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Coronavirus: Age Appropriate Ways of Explaining it to Your Children and Managing Fears and Anxiety

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I was honored to be recently invited to CBS8 in San Diego to discuss age appropriate ways of explaining Coronavirus to children as well as how to mange the fears and anxiety surrounding the recent outbreak.

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Everywhere we turn and look these days we are inundated with messages of Coronavirus. Children and adults all over the world are scared and fears are being fueled by the unknown and mixed messages within our society. Since anxiety is cultivated by ambiguity, and if we are unsure of what might happen in the future, our fears are triggered. It's not healthy to live with worry or live in a world of fear. And stress lowers your immune system, so the higher your stress hormone is (cortisol), the more you may be at risk for illness, so stressing is counterproductive. And too much fear and anxiety can instill panic, so manage your stress before stressing out your children.

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This morning I urged parents to know the facts before sharing them with their children. That goes for sharing your fears with your children as well. As parents, we need to stay calm in an un-calm world. Chances are if you let your anxiety rise out of control, most likely, you will instill fear in your children as well. So before you believe everything you see on TV and everything you hear from your friends or social media, educate yourself so you can educate your children appropriately. Give them accurate information. Don't stir fears and anxieties with excessive, scary photos or videos, or inaccurate information.

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Children learn emotions and how to handle them through us, their parents, so even though it's healthy to show them we are human and it is ok to show emotions appropriately, it's a fine line, and we also need to show them resilience, strength, bravery, and calmness in a heightened situation (ie: it is ok to be sad and cry but we wouldn't throw ourselves on the floor and stay there all day kicking and screaming or it's ok to be scared but we aren't locking ourselves in our bedrooms or screaming "we are all going to die" in the middle of the street.)

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I recommend exposing your children to only what they can cognitively handle at their particular age. I also suggest speaking in their words. What you tell a toddler will be different than a middle school aged child. The older the child, the more they will want to know, so decide how much you want to share. How much is too much? I say, as long as your child's daily routine isn't being affected negatively by fear and anxiety, they can cognitively, emotionally, and mentally handle the information you are sharing with them.

I suggest checking in with them and asking them to choose one word they are feeling. Let them describe the emotion to you. Use simple words and hear how they are explaining their emotions. You can also prompt them with words like mad, sad, happy, excited, bored, confused, frustrated, angry, scared, worried, etc if they are younger and think of the exact word they want to share.

But only tell them/show them what they need to know. If they don't seem to notice all the chaos maybe not mention anything out of the norm to them. Follow their lead and ask them what they know about it first and respond in an age appropriate way. If they seem unaffected, don't offer any information that may concern them.

I suggest using a sliding scale and check in with them once a day on how they are feeling on a scale from 1-10 (1 being the worst, 10 being the best) and then track and monitor their level of emotional anxiety each day and then respond appropriately.

I would say try not to let a topic like this take over your world. Try not to be constantly searching for updates, but instead, take breaks and live life with as much normalcy as possible. And if a small child asks about Coronavirus, you can say something like. "it's like the flu and some people can get sick from it, so always make sure to wash your hands before you eat and if you see someone who is sick at school, kindly walk away and play with someone else."

Empower your children to come up with an emergency plan and kit for any type of emergency like a fire, earthquake, power outage, quarantine, etc. This will help them feel more secure in what to expect if there is an emergency and help ease some distress. Make sure there are items in your kit like a flashlight, bandages, water, blanket, etc so they feel prepared just in case - this can help lessen anxiety because they are being proactive in the solution to the problem.

Teach them what they can do to be proactive and how to be safe (i.e.: wash their hands, avoid touching their eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, use anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, no sharing drinks with friends, cover their mouth when they cough, stay home when sick, etc. Believe it or not, many studies have shown that wearing a medical facial mask is not helpful in avoiding getting sick from Coronavirus, so think before you buy them and determine if you really need them or if it's too much for your family. And since many stores are selling out of items, think about what your family needs, and save some for others and or donate some to shelters and food banks!

Most importantly, if your child expresses a fear, listen to them, validate them, and give them coping skills to help maintain fears and concerns.

Coping solutions can include: sensory grounding exercises, visual imagery exercises, utilizing a calming corner in your home, giving your child fidgets or some sort of comfort toy, spending time playing outside, art, play, journaling, getting exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, and mindfulness exercises.

I'll have more therapeutic play based coping activities you can do on the blog soon!

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Is your child showing excessive signs of fear and anxiety? You can read more about childhood anxiety from one of my previous blogs, but some symptoms you may see include anger, sadness, irritability, separation anxiety, insomnia, trouble sleeping, trouble eating, inability to focus or sit still, hypervigilance, constantly picking at skin, nails, or hair, and physiological symptoms including headaches, stomach aches.

If you are concerned about your child's symptoms, please contact a mental health provider in your area via PsychologyToday.com.

This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.