Keeping Them Safe Without Scaring Them Silly: How to Talk to Kids About Swine Flu
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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.