Swine Flu, or the H1N1 virus, has been all over the news since the outbreak in the spring of 2009, reaching pandemic proportions in less than three months. Reducing the spread of the virus will be one of the leading issues for schools this year—school officials are already stocking up on face masks and hand sanitizer, and are being encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control to promote distance between students whenever possible to avoid spreading the virus. Parents, too, will take their own measures to ensure their children stay well, such as canceling play dates with kids who show signs of illness and vaccinating their kids.
But, between the vaccines and the canceled field trips are a lot of anxious kids wondering what’s going on. What should you tell your child?
The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) have teamed up to provide information for parents on how to talk to children about swine flu. The basic message they want parents to tell children is this: We, along with your teachers, school administrators and others in our community, are doing everything to make sure you don’t get sick, and if you do get sick we know how to make you better.
“Children need to be reassured that the measures are being taken so they can be more secure,” says Katherine O’Neill, Ph.D., the Disaster Response Network Coordinator for the North Dakota Psychological Association. “If adults handle that in a calm way, that helps children be less anxious.”
Giving children simple, but truthful information about the pandemic in language they can understand is important, because if they don’t get an explanation that makes sense to them, says O’Neill, “They will make one up.”
That’s how myths about swine flu flourish, among both children and adults. The PTA, NASN and the NASP suggest parents ask their children to tell them what they already know about the swine flu, so that they can find out what misconceptions they need to address. Here are some common misconceptions that children have about swine flu, and how you can help dispel them:
Myth 1: Everyone is getting swine flu. The truth: The number of people who are sick is very small, and health officials are being careful to make sure as few people as possible get sick. “Kids who see this on TV assume everyone has it and that they’re going to get it,” says Patti Harrison, Ph.D., president of the National Association of School Psychologists. She says parents should explain to their children that, “Some people have this, and we’re trying to prevent you from getting it.”
Myth 2: If I get swine flu, I’ll die. The truth: Swine flu is just a type of flu, and though getting the flu is never fun, the majority of people who get swine flu feel as though they’ve had a bad cold, then they get better. The symptoms include fever, sore throat, and cough. Some people also have a runny nose, fatigue, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Empower your child with explanations about what these symptoms feel like, so that she can be on the lookout.
Myth 3: You can get swine flu from eating pork. The truth: The virus travels through the coughs and sneezes of people infected with the virus. People may also become get swine flu by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouths or noses. Health officials stress that handwashing is the number one way to protect yourself from swine flu.
Myth 4: Flu shots make you sick. The truth: Flu shots, including the new vaccine being developed for swine flu, don’t use the live virus. Amy Garcia, RN, Executive Director of the National Association of School Nurses, says if you are planning to give your child the swine flu vaccine when it comes out (most likely in October) you should not tell her in advance. “And parents should not be asking their children 'do you want a shot?'. Instead, explain that you are doing this for her health,” she says. If a child asks questions about how vaccines work, Garcia suggests explaining that a vaccine is a way to help your body not get the flu.
The main point is to give kids just enough of the right kind of information. Here are some additional points on how to talk to kids about swine flu without scaring them silly:
Keep it normal. The best way to reassure a child who may be anxious about the swine flu pandemic is to keep the routine as normal as possible. That may be difficult given the changes likely to take place at home and at school as a result of swine flu prevention measures. Be sure to talk to your child about these new measures so they can be prepared. “If school nurses are wearing masks, school events are canceled, or other unusual events occur, children may be confused or anxious,” O’Neill says.“Parents can inform children that these actions are being taken to protect them from getting sick. A person may pass on the virus to others without knowledge or intent, so it is better to put precautions in place to prevent the spread of the illness."
Empower your child. To allay your child's fears, make her part of the solution by teaching her the tricks to preventing the spread of the virus. “Children will be more resilient to crisis if they have something they can do to help,” O’Neill says. Here are some ways your child can keep her community healthy:
- Wash your hands well by using plenty of soap and water, and scrubbing them long enough to sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice.
- Don’t have a tissue, but need to cough or sneeze? Do it in your elbow or shoulder.
- Don’t share drinks. The rule, coined by school nurse Mary Pappas (who discovered the first case of swine flu in New York) is: “If it’s wet and it’s not yours, don’t touch it.”
- If you don’t feel well, stay home from school.
- Give your overall health a boost, by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep.
- An additional nice thing? Make a card for someone who is sick.
If getting your child to follow these guidelines seems a challenge, just remember that promoting any type of behavior is a matter of good modeling. “If kids see parents coughing into their shoulder or elbow, it will seem like the normal thing,” Garcia says.
Minimize TV coverage. The information on news shows can cause children unnecessary worry. O’Neill says “parents need to seek credible sources of information, for example, school officials and government spokespersons. Doing so will help both parents and children respond most appropriately.” Garcia says the best thing for parents to do is to “turn off the TV and read a book instead.”
Don’t jump to conclusions. “It was a big concern in the spring when the first reports were that the virus was coming out of Mexico. There was a lot of concern about excessive blaming and bullying towards an ethnic group,” says Garcia, who reminds the public that this is “an equal opportunity virus.” It’s important that children aren’t allowed to gossip about who may or may not have swine flu. O’Neill says parents need to advise children that sharing frightening information that may be inaccurate is wrong. The old maxim, she says, applies here: “If you don’t know it’s true, don’t pass it on.”
In the unfortunate event that your child does contract swine flu, Garcia recommends that parents treat it no differently than how you would treat the regular flu—responding in a common sense way, with lots of reassurances that the child will be okay. “Refer to it as the flu with your child. There won’t be a lot of testing to differentiate swine flu from seasonal flu because the treatment is the same. There will be standard precautions with all of them,” she says, adding that any change in that protocol will be heavily publicized.
The bottom line is that the safety precautions being recommended by the CDC, scary as they may seem, are just that: precautions. Schools are 14 times more crowded than your home environment, and so when it comes to the spread of disease, it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. The thing to stress to kids, says O’Neill, is that these measures are temporary, but necessary.
Ultimately, if you take a calm, yet prepared stance, your child will take your cue. “Children are really competent and resilient little humans,” Harrison says. “If they are reassured and provided with the basic factual information, they trust the adults around them, and are reassured by them.”