A message from Riley Physicians pediatrician Jeremy Mescher, MD, FAAP
During this time of rapidly evolving recommendations, interrupted routines, and around-the-clock COVID-19 news coverage it can be difficult for children to maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives. As a result, it becomes incumbent on parents and caregivers to keep their children informed while also exerting a sense of hope and calm.
Concern surrounding this new virus can make families and children anxious, and children look to the adults in their lives for how to react to such stressful events. This can be quite the challenge, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its parenting arm, Healthy Children, have published some recommendations on how to accomplish just this. The Riley Physicians, a partner with IU Health Southern Indiana Physicians, team in Bloomington aims to summarize those recommendations to give parents some tools to help navigate these irregular and ever changing times. However, prior to doing so let’s put some context to the discussion.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a new respiratory illness that is caused by the virus, SARS-CoV-2, or put another way, the 2019 novel human coronavirus. The virus includes reference to 2019 because this was the year it was discovered to be of clinical significance. This virus belongs to a broader family of human coronaviruses which have long been known to cause illnesses like the common cold. Nearly everyone gets exposed to at least one of these viruses early in life, usually with mild symptoms lasting only a short period.
The new coronavirus illness, COVID-19, has been shown to cause cough, sore throat, fever, and difficulty breathing. While the full extent of its transmissibility (how the virus is spread) is not known, we do know that it can spread from respiratory droplets, which are passed from the nose and mouth of an infected individual to surfaces in the environment by way a cough or sneeze. Then, an uninfected individual touches such a surface before touching his/her face, thus passing the virus to themselves.
Are children less susceptible to COVID-19?
While there is not enough clinical data to make any definitive statements, the early studies suggest that while children are certainly susceptible to COVID-19, their symptoms are generally less severe than those of adults. This trend, which was first reported in China over the past couple of months, was reinforced by the CDC earlier this week.
However, it is important to note that both studies involve very small numbers of patients (around 2,500 cases of COVID-19 in those under 18 in the CDC study out of the 150,000 total cases at that time). This does not necessarily mean that children are less likely to contract COVID-19, they may still be an important means of passing the virus from one person to another.
In fact, it is important to discuss with children that even though they may feel fine and not be showing any symptoms, they still may be capable of passing the virus to others. Reinforce with them that therefore it is very important that they not be around other people, especially elderly grandparents. Researchers and physicians are continuing to learn more daily regarding who is at the highest risk, and why these populations are most vulnerable.
Talking to children about COVID-19:
Overall, the AAP encourages that parents talk to their children about COVID-19 in a way that they can understand, which often requires filtering the information coming from news services.
Remember: you know your child better than anybody. Allow their questions to guide the conversation, to not overload them with information. Be truthful and patient.
These tips can help:
- Reassurance — Remind your children that researchers and doctors are learning as much as they can, as quickly as they can, about the virus and are taking steps to keep everyone safe.
- Maintain a routine whenever possible — Try and recreate structure, this may include a written schedule/planner, planned family activities including games or being active outside, and maintaining regular mealtimes. This could be a great time to let the child involve his/herself in the meal preparation to promote nutrition.
- Structured games/activities as a family
- Set times to complete/work on schoolwork
- Checklists for household chores
- Allow them some control — Remind them of what they can do to help: washing their hands often, coughing into a tissue or their sleeves, and practicing good social distancing.
- Be available — Make time to let your children talk about their feelings and help reframe their concerns/anxieties by giving perspective.
- Social distancing does not mean social isolation — Talk to extended family and friends via Facetime or other video messengers; stay engaged with the people important to your children.
- Watch for signs of anxiety — Look for nonverbal cues of unease, including: crankiness, poor sleep, clinging, or being easily distracted. Keep the reassurance going and try to stick to your normal routines.
- Monitor their media — Keep young children away from frightening images they may see on TV, social media, computers, etc. For older children, talk together about what they are hearing on the news and correct any misinformation or rumors you may hear.
- Be a good role model — Avoid blaming as much as possible. While COVID-19 started in Wuhan, China, it doesn't mean that having Asian ancestry makes someone more susceptible to the virus or more contagious. Stigma and discrimination hurt everyone by creating fear or anger towards others. Showing empathy and support to others will be reflected by your children.
- Care for yourself — You cannot be the wonderful role model you are unless you have support for you as well. Reach out to friends and family. This will model positive support for your children as well.