This is how I'm talking to my daughter about coronavirus and the state of emergency in San Francisco

Mother daughter child kid talking family

  • Amy Ettinger is a parent who lives 70 miles south of San Francisco, which declared a state of emergency this week as it braces for a coronavirus outbreak (though there have been zero confirmed cases there so far).
  • Talking to children about the spreading virus is tricky, she writes, because you want to relay the facts without creating too much anxiety.
  • The best way to start the conversation is by asking your child what they've heard about COVID-19 at school or from friends, and then correct any misconceptions, according to one clinical psychologist.
  • "In the US, we're pretty safe right now," said Yvonne Maldonado, infectious disease expert and director of Infection Control at Stanford Children's Hospital. "That's the message to give to children."
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I've always asked my 10-year-old daughter dozens of times to wash her hands and cover her cough, but with news that COVID-19 is spreading globally I'm even more vigilant that she follows my advice.

"San Francisco declared a state of emergency because of the virus," I told Julianna. "Schools might get closed for a little while, but we'll be safe." She asked a few follow-up questions, and then went back to eating her dinner.
On Thursday, the first US case of unknown origin was diagnosed in Northern California, raising fears about contracting the disease through community exposure. My family lives about 70 miles south of San Francisco, and although there are no reported cases yet, officials are preparing for the possibility of an outbreak. COVID-19 has killed more than 2,800 people globally and sickened more than 82,000.

Talking to children about the spreading virus is tricky. On the one hand, you want them to practice good respiratory hygiene - by coughing into their sleeve, using tissues, and regular hand washing, said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, infectious disease expert and director of Infection Control at Stanford Children's Hospital. On the other hand, you want to be careful not to create too much anxiety.

But with news that the virus is spreading rapidly, it can be difficult to achieve that balance.

How to help ease their fears - and yours

At Stanford Hospital, Maldonado is seeing parents who are worried about their children having playdates at a family's home where someone recently travelled to Asia. But she believes that those fears are unfounded and says it's important to let your children know that there have been very few cases of the virus reported domestically.

"In the US, we're pretty safe right now," said Maldonado. "That's the message to give to children. It's also helpful for parents to explain that children in other countries aren't getting hit very hard by the disease.

"If anything, what we're seeing is that children are not getting sick as severely as older adults," Maldonado said. "That's a piece of good news."

For children of all ages, it's important for parents to reassure their children that the situation is under control.

What can you tell kids who are starting to worry?

"We're dealing with this in real time," said Maldonado "Everything is being done, and we have a great health system here in the United States."

What to say - and what not to say

While most of the Bay Area parents I asked said they were trying to downplay things for their kids and mainly just reminding them to wash their hands more frequently, at least one local mom is taking serious precautions because of the news that the virus is spreading.

Melissa Gianotti, who lives in Pleasanton, California, about an hour from the first US case of community transmission, has already stocked up on supplies in case COVID-19 hits her family. Gianotti contracted the H1N1 virus in 2009 and was housebound for more than two weeks. Because a close family member also has a weakened immune system, Gianotti's been honest with her two boys about the dangers of germs.
During this week's trip to Costco, her 2-year-old donned gloves and helped wipe down the shopping cart, while Gianotti filled it with toilet paper, Tylenol, crackers and water.

Amy Ettinger

When her children asked why she was buying so many groceries, she made the analogy of preparing for a big storm.

"Sometimes there are times when you just need extra stuff," she said.

Gianotti is also desensitizing her 5-year-old son, who has autism, to wearing a mask, by turning it into a superhero game. The key, she said, is to keep the discussion positive. "We just changed the language around it, so it's not based in fear," said Gianotti. "I told him, "This is how we keep healthy and stay safe."

The information you decide to withhold from your kids is as important as what you tell them. One of the scariest aspects of the virus for Gianotti is that it can be spread while those who are infected are asymptomatic. She's decided to keep that information from her boys, to minimize their stress.

Aim to keep things business as usual

Tamar Chansky, PhD., a clinical psychologist and author of "Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, said parents should wait until they are calm before talking to their kids about the virus. Children pick up on our tone and facial expressions.

"If you're in a panic mode, then don't talk to your child," she said. "Wait until you've settled back down, so that you can give information."

You can start the conversation by asking your child what they've heard about COVID-19 at school or from friends, and then correct any misconceptions. Let your child know that adults in authority are working to contain the virus, find a vaccine, and inform the public about specific instructions or health emergencies.

Making sure children and teens feel safe, is the ultimate goal in the conversation so that children don't spend time "catastrophizing" about what might happen. Teens, especially, may get fixated on the news, she said.

If your child starts to be distracted by worry, encourage them to share their feelings and then redirect them back to homework or a favorite video game, Chansky advises.
"We don't like uncertainty, that's just how we're all built," Chansky said. "But children should feel like it's business as usual until further notice."

Amy Ettinger is a freelance writer and the author of Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America (Dutton/2017). Follow her at @ettinger_amy.