Talking about washing hands and covering coughs isn’t nearly enough. That’s a strong message for families from Gov. Tim Walz and Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester.
When I asked the governor on March 12 about what he suggests families say to their children about the new coronavirus, he stressed that the health basics are necessary but not sufficient. He mentioned that he’s never had so much acceptance at home when stressing the importance of washing hands. He continued: “It’s important for young people and children to know that even in these contentious times, people are working together to deal with this. I’m pleased by the bipartisan support. Tell kids that. Let them know that the risk that they will get seriously ill is very slight. Reassure them that we are working together to keep them safe.”
Rajapakse had many insights and suggestions regarding the new coronavirus disease, called COVID-19. She pointed out, first: “Kids definitely know something’s going on. They’re talking on playgrounds and social media with their friends. Parents should not minimize this. It’s an important discussion. “
She recommended asking young people: “What have you heard? What questions do you have? Then, if families don’t know the answer, there are excellent sources of information.” She pointed out: “Parents won’t have all the answers. This is an opportunity to model good behavior about looking things up.”
She urges adults to remind young people that a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 is being shared on social media. Rajapakse recommended several websites, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota Department of Health, and World Health Organization. (More information about these websites later in the column.)
She also stressed that “conversations should be tailored to the age and developmental level of the youngster. However, every youngster needs be reassured that this infection seems to result in mild symptoms – cold and sore throat – for children and teens.”
Also, families need to tell children who will stay home with them if they do get sick. This helps relieve anxieties.
Furthermore, the doctor explained that even though they might not get extremely sick, young people can pass the disease on to others, so washing frequently and coughing into your sleeve is important.
Rajapakse also urged that families, “Initiate this conversation when you yourself are feeling calm.”
This outbreak has resulted in some bullying. Rajapakse urges adults to be very clear that becoming ill with COVID-19 has nothing to do with students’ race, religion or where they come from. Kids sometimes have difficulty differentiating what’s happening in other countries and what’s happening here.
Some young people will be disappointed that spring break trips have been cancelled. Rajapakse recommended explaining that people traveling has helped spread the disease, so avoiding traveling now can help slow the spread of the disease.
She believes that children tolerate things better if they know something might happen. So she suggests telling young people that schools might or might not close.
Rajapakse recommended several websites include one maintained by the Minnesota Department of Health. You can start with a short video from Jan Malcolm, commissioner of health. For those whose first language is other than English, there are brief fact sheets in languages including Arabic, Chinese Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese. The fact sheets are found here: https://bit.ly/2TRgMVn.
The CDC also has suggestions on how to talk with young people and children about this disease. Among their recommendations:
— “Remain calm and reassuring.”
“Consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on COVID-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety.”
— “Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.” (See https://bit.ly/2U4VVNa.)
— “Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs.”
CDC recommendations are found here: https://bit.ly/2QekPZx.
The CDC also has ideas about how to “plan, prepare and respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019” That’s here: https://bit.ly/2U2qmnc.
A national center focusing on students with disabilities has prepared information that families and educators may find useful. That’s available here: https://bit.ly/2WhCBPt.
Children and teens need our help in understanding what the coronavirus means to them. Fortunately, terrific resources are available to help young people understand what’s happening.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.