By Chad Rodgers, MD, FAAP
The coronavirus pandemic is a scary time for everyone, but especially for young children and teenagers. First, as a caregiver, you need to make sure you are caring for yourself. If you are stressed, find a way, while your kids are safe, to “take a break” and count to 10. Take some deep breaths and go to a quiet place. Parents can do a lot to lessen the fear and anxiety their children are feeling.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions I get from parents during times of crisis or natural disasters.
What’s the most important thing I can do to protect my children?
Be consistent and make sure your family is listening to expert advice during this national health emergency: stay a safe distance away from other people, wash hands frequently, keep hands away from your face, disinfect all frequently touched surfaces daily and wash clothing after going out. Kids will follow your lead on these behavior changes so be sure to model safe behavior. Consistently model and positively reinforce coughing into your sleeve, keeping a safe distance, and washing your hands. It may take some extra effort but be sure to praise them when your kids are using protective behavior.
Can children get COVID-19?
Yes, more and more cases are showing up in children, even infants and teenagers. In most cases, symptoms are milder, and most children have done well. But it is still can be a very serious infection and can last weeks. Some children have died from COVID-19 infections although most have underlying medical conditions that have weakened their immune system. Remind your kids, especially your teens, this isn’t so much about them getting sick but protecting others they love and care about from getting sick.
Playgrounds are closing, and my kids are used to playing outdoors almost every day. Are there safe alternatives?
Play is an important part of children’s lives and it’s also important for their physical and mental health to get exercise, especially time outdoors. But I think government officials are correct in closing playgrounds for two reasons. The virus can live on hard surfaces for a long time and you don’t know if someone is disinfecting a park’s play equipment. Also, kids are social beings and do not understand the need to self-distance from their friends and playmates. Distancing, especially with siblings, is impractical but protecting extended family and neighbors is important. Sometimes we have forgotten how easy it is to go for a walk or bike/tricycle ride. Encourage your children to find their own ways to maintain their playtime with their immediate family – relay races in the backyard, walking the dog, kickball, set up a goal for soccer – no idea is too crazy as long as it’s safe. Our kids are very comfortable with virtual options. As adults, we may have also forgotten how to play, but it’s good for us too! Play with your kids. Break out the cards, puzzles and board games. Run around the yard and act silly. You will feel better. Some of my best and favorite memories as a child are playing checkers with my dad and Uno with my sister. Make memories.
Is it safe for them to play with the neighborhood kids, their cousins who live across town or stay overnight with their grandparents?
No. Children should only be around the people they have been sheltering in place with. This will not last forever, although it seems that way to an impatient young child. Help younger children learn to use social media (with your supervision!) to connect with friends and other family members. Older siblings can be especially effective with this task. We are fortunate to have so much technology at our fingertips. This is a great time to schedule a virtual visit with friends, cousins, and especially our grand and great grandparents who are the most isolated and have the highest risk if they get the virus.
My teenager never listened to me before COVID-19. How can I impress upon him the importance of isolation from his friends?
That’s a tough one and I’m sure every parent would like a workable answer. Teens and 20-somethings believe they are invincible and won’t get the virus. Anything that helps them understand the seriousness of this emergency may help. Again, “it’s not about you getting sick but about making others sick.” Ask them to learn about the virus on their cell phone or computer from safe and credible sources like the CDC. Kids often pay more attention to information from a source other than their parents. As parents, we often try to protect them from information because we love them and don’t want them to be stressed or anxious. They can take more than we realize when they see us also remain calm, stay informed, discuss what we are learning. Let them be part of the family’s response and involve them in the family’s plans, including contingencies if someone falls ill. Contingency planning may give them a strongly needed sense of control during all the uncertainty. Build resilience in your children.
How can I tell the difference between their annual spring allergy sniffles and COVID-19?
That’s a great question and allergy season is here in full force. Don’t freak out if your kids have on-going sniffles because allergies typically cause head cold symptoms. If they normally take an allergy medicine like Benadryl and get better after taking it, then it’s probably not COVID-19. If they have lower respiratory congestion and cough; fever, body aches and feel horrible, contact their doctor for advice about next steps and if they should be tested for COVID-19. Consider a telemedicine visit with their doctor if available. Read AFMC’s blog article, “Get Comfy With Telemedicine,” to learn more about how a telemedicine visit works and how you can prepare to make it a useful experience.
I have a couple of very sensitive children who are experiencing a lot of anxiety and fear about this pandemic. What’s the best way to help them reduce their anxiety?
Children often model adult behavior in their reaction to emergencies. Remember to check yourself and “put your oxygen mask on first.” As the adult, try to remain calm, discuss the changes in their lives that are caused by COVID-19, reassure them this will not last forever, and then move on. Many times, as parents we “over-think” our responses to stressful or difficult situations or subjects. Let them know it is okay to ask questions. Answer their question and try not to over answer. 24/7 emersion in this new reality is not mentally healthy for anyone. Try to maintain a sense of structure, monitor media exposure, and do your best to maintain normalcy in their lives. This is important even for older teens who may believe they are too old or too “cool” to be frightened. It’s okay to admit fear, just don’t let it consume you or your children. Find ways to make a difference and take positive actions. Emphasize that everyone in their family, their school, their friends, and their community have important roles in reducing the spread of this virus and saving lives. Helping them find their role and unique contributions to the fight will help reduce anxiety. Mostly, in the end, remember you are not alone. We are all in this together.
Dr. Rodgers is chief medical officer for AFMC and a board-certified pediatrician in private practice in Little Rock.