Why you shouldn’t lie to your kids about coronavirus
Child Psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg has urged parents not to lie to their children about the coronavirus pandemic.
"Find out what they know, figure out what they need to feel safe, focus on what they can control," Mr Carr-Gregg said.
"[For example] things to do to battle the pandemic: practising social distancing, washing their hands or covering a cough or sneeze. Keep a list on the fridge of the stuff that makes them feel better, safe and healthy to do."
Mr Carr-Greg fielded questions from News Corp readers in a wide-ranging Covid-19 Q&A, on everything from social distancing to confusion over why schools are still open.
Here's what he had to say:
Q: My eight-year-old says he's not worried about the virus, but keeps asking lots of questions about it. It makes me think he probably is anxious. How much information should we give to children?
A: Families and caregivers of children and young people should discuss news of the virus with those in their care in an open and honest way. Try to relay the facts without causing alarm, and in a way that is appropriate for an 8 year old and his temperament. It is important to listen to any questions he may have, to let him know that they are safe and that it's normal to feel concerned. If the media or the news is getting too much for him, encourage them to limit their exposure. I am a big fan of this video for kids which has some useful tips for talking to young people about scary stuff in the news.
Q: Pretty scary time and my kids having trouble sleeping- any suggestions?
A: When it gets to the point where kids really seem to constantly have this on their mind, they're talking a lot about it, having trouble sleeping, seeming clingy...then it is OK to ask for a little bit of help. The coronavirus pandemic provides parents a chance to help children manage uncertainty and teach them skills they need. Find out what they know, figure out what they need to feel safe, focus on what they can control e.g. things to do to battle the pandemic: practising social distancing, washing their hands or covering a cough or sneeze. Keep a list on the fridge of the stuff that makes them feel better, safe and healthy to do. Exercise, drinking water, watching favourite YouTube videos or video chatting with a loved one are all examples of activities that children might enjoy that will help them grapple with anxiety. This won't just help your kids manage this stressor - it will help them cope for the rest of their lives.
Q: We're living with my old parents, over 70- and 80-years-old, and I have one baby of less than six-months-old. My biggest concern right now is if my son get infected to coronavirus at his school and then spread it to my parents, they will very likely unable to bear this virus attack, and my little baby's immune system. My heart told me to keep my son at home ASAP. Is that a right decision?
A: The PM has advised that all parents in Australia may make their own choice in this matter. Given the age of your parents and your understandable anxiety, I have no problem with your decision. You should probably talk to your GP about how what additional precautions that you need to take to safeguard everyone.
Q: We've got two young boys aged 1.5 and 3 whom need to burn off energy everyday. Usually child care and a trip to the playground addresses this situation. However with a full-scale lockdown on the horizon how would you suggest achieving this within the confines of our home everyday?
A: I am not an infectious disease expert, and I don't know the latest advice around going to the park and running around. I do know that oxygenating the brain, getting exercise, fresh air and sunshine are great for one's psychology. Some of my clients are using exercise apps and YouTube channels to have regular PE classes. I'd chat to my GP and see what they advise.
Q: There are children for whom this is their worst nightmare - school is their safe haven from abusive families. Are systems in place to maintain and enhance child protection services and checks on known families? And do you have any recommendations for people who may be concerned about families they know are in this situation?
A: Great question. As far as I know, in all states and territories, the normal systems remain in place to maintain and enhance child protection services as well as checks on known families. If people are concerned about particular families they should call triple-0.
Q: Kids and social distance is impossible, kids lick each other and just about anything. Their noses run, they sweat when they play, they hug and slobber. The fact is they are less controllable than dogs. So why are schools still open? Are we just waiting for something to happen?
A: I believe that the Government is taking its advice from a group called the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), the key decision-making committee for health emergencies. It's chaired by the Australian chief medical officer and consists of some of Australia's best medical minds. It gave two main reasons. First, and most importantly, it says children are at very low risk from coronavirus. saying that in China, 2.4 per cent of total reported cases were under the age of 19-years-old and that worldwide, of those cases under 19 years of age, very few were severe or critical. Secondly, they argued that closing schools could have a crippling effect on the health sector and the economy more broadly, estimating that around 15 per cent of the total workforce and 30 per cent of the healthcare workforce may need to take time off work to care for children.
Q: Whats the best way to explain to kids that once schools close (or parents remove their kids) that the return date is completely unknown?
What is the best way to explain to them why they can't hang out with their mates these holidays...and Winter...?
A: I think honesty is the best policy. The situation in Australia is unique and we do not know the answer. We can say that China, which is now diagnosing more cases in returning travellers than in people infected at home, reported no new domestically acquired cases, for the first time in more than two months. South Korea, which had an explosive outbreak that began in February, is aggressively battering down its epidemic curve. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have together reported only about 600 cases. Those successes have been bought by a layering of what are known as non-pharmaceutical initiatives - including social distancing, school closures and travel restrictions - aimed at breaking chains of transmission to keep the virus from going into an exponential growth cycle. I think we can be purveyors of hope, so tell them about other how other countries seem to be turning the corner. So there is hope.
Q: Can you give us some tips on keeping kids occupied (and sane) during the school holidays. All ages (from littlies to late teens).
A: The experts all agree that setting and sticking to a regular schedule is key, even when you're all at home all day. All young people should be encouraged to get up, eat and go to bed at their normal times. Consistency and structure are calming during times of stress. Kids, especially younger ones or those who are anxious, benefit from knowing what's going to happen and when. The schedule can mimic a day camp schedule, changing activities at predictable intervals, and alternating periods of study and rest. It may help to print out a schedule and go over it as a family each morning. Setting a timer will help kids know when activities are about to begin or end. Having regular reminders will help head off meltdowns when it's time to move from one thing to another from one thing to the next. I'm doing a webinar on the subject tonight here, which you can register for here.
Q: Kids are seeing huge mixed messages from our Governments. For example, stay away from your friends, public places, even their grandparents. And now they're being told they have to stay home during the school holidays; yet schools are ok to stay open (in Queensland). How do we explain this conflicting information to them (and get them to take the threat seriously)?
A: Families and caregivers of children and young people should discuss news of the virus with those in their care in an open and honest way. Try to relate the facts without causing alarm, and in a way that is appropriate for their age and temperament. It is important to listen to any questions they may have, to let them know that they are safe and that it's normal to feel concerned. If the media or the news is getting too much for them, encourage them to limit their exposure. This video from beyond blue has some useful tips for talking to young people about scary stuff in the news.
Q: What's the best way to get across to teenagers that this is serious?
A: Great questions. Some young people are in denial but the truth is coronavirus presents a risk to the whole community, but one large group is most vulnerable - the elderly, particularly older Aussies with pre-existing health conditions, who are especially vulnerable to the virus. The risk of death significantly jumps among people with pre-existing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory conditions. It's important teenagers take it seriously. Explain that slowing the spread will not just flatten the curve - essentially preventing a spike in cases that the health system could not manage, and saving lives in general but they may save the life of someone close to them, like a grandparent - so personalise it - and talk about washing hands, sneezing etiquette and social distancing - which is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness.
Q: Our immature 14-year-old cant understand that if he gets infected, with no visible signs, and visits his grandparents, who have continual respiratory conditions, they could die. He simply says, "but I won't hug them". After continual pestering we say "bad luck for you, but the answer is no physical visits". He is now angry with us as it's our fault.
A: Behind that anger in your 14-year-old boy, lies fear, frustration and hurt. So try and be understanding, acknowledge how hard this must be for him, remind him that this is a temporary period of isolation designed to slow the spread of the virus. It is important to listen to any questions he may have, to let him know that his grandparents are safe as long as they stay away from other people who may have the virus and that it's normal to feel concerned. As adults we need to allow for the fact that many 14-year-olds will be holding a lot of tension around all these sudden and often stressful changes to their routines and lives and may need time to adjust. If the media or the news is getting too much for them, encourage him to limit his exposure.
Q: How do we prepare them for the fact that people around them might actually die from this? Without being scary and a doomsayer? Or do we just 'wait and see' and pray it doesn't happen?
A: My experience is that the young people will take their lead from us. We need to let them know that we are taking the coronavirus seriously but we are not panicking; history suggests the virus will eventually peak - then school will restart, the Australian public will stop working from home, start travelling again and economic activity will return. Many experts say that therapeutic drugs may be out in a few months and we may have a vaccine by next year. This is not downplaying what is happening, it is just context. In the meantime, let's all acknowledge that this transition is daunting. It's unfamiliar. And it's also critically important to reduce the spread of the virus. I don't think that we have to give them a big lecture about coronavirus or how many people may die. Instead my advice is to be guided by their curiosity, if they ask you how many people will die, ask them what they think and then tell them the truth - which is no one knows for certain. Reassure them that the government is doing everything in its power to reduce deaths. As of today 8 people have died, we are doing more testing than most countries and it seems like the Government is getting very serious about flattening the curve. You could talk about how China seems to be ramping up again after they did what we are doing.
Q: At the moment my children are happy! They are home with mum and dad and enjoying the slow life! But I expect there will be a tipping point because life has become so different. What signs should we be aware of, that might indicate worries, anxiety and fear manifesting.
A: For some children, excessive anxiety affects their behaviour and thoughts every day, interfering with their school, home and social life. This is when you may need professional help to tackle it. Signs to look out for in your child are: finding it hard to concentrate not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams, not eating properly, quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts, constantly worrying or having negative thoughts feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often always crying being clingy complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell. If this becomes a constant pattern of behaviour, I'd contact my GP and get my child assessed.
Q: How do we teach young children about all this, without making them germophobic and frightened of people, places and things?
A: Don't be afraid to discuss the coronavirus. Most children will have already heard about the virus or seen people wearing face masks, so parents shouldn't avoid talking about it. Not talking about something can actually make kids worry more. Look at the conversation as an opportunity to convey the facts and set the emotional tone. Young children will feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe. We know that the coronavirus is transmitted mostly by coughing and touching surfaces. The experts recommend thoroughly washing hands as the primary means of staying healthy. So remind your children that they are taking care of everyone by washing their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (or the length of two "Happy Birthday" songs) when they come in from outside, before they eat, and after blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing or using the bathroom. If they ask about face masks, explain that the experts say they aren't necessary for most people. If they see people wearing face masks, explain that those people are being extra cautious.
Q: I am so worried about my children not being about to spend time with their friends. Social connectedness is so important. Do you agree? Is FaceTime really an adequate alternative?
A: Of course, FaceTime is not a perfect substitute for real face-to-face interaction. Virtual quality time lacks many of the benefits of physical proximity and human touch. Our non-verbal behaviour or body language is not being transmitted as easily. Spending time together over Skype is unlikely to feel as satisfying as being in the same room. But it's better than nothing. I am offering FaceTime consultation to parents and teens and find that I can get a lot of reassurance done in 30 minutes. This is a generation used to electronic forms of communication.
Originally published as Why you shouldn't lie to your kids about coronavirus