How to Talk to Kids About Health Scares

Without Scaring the Pants Off of Them

Every time I read the news I come away with a different account of the swine flu and whether or not all of humanity is doomed. Last week I was ready to duct-tape my house from incoming germs and buy cases of protective masks. Then NBC's Brian Williams announced that we could take those initial doom-and-gloom reports down a notch or two. The flu strain isn't nearly as fatal or severe as those first late-breaking news reports warned. Schools are reopening and those kids (at least in my area) who were affected are recovering. We can breathe a bit easier, but there's still concerning news: though milder, this flu strain is clearly spreading rapidly and is now tagged as the "disease of young people."

Meanwhile our kids' worry radars are up -- and rightly so. Hearing about a "pandemic of far-reaching proportions that could potentially impact all humanity" is alarming enough to a kid, but when they hear those reports on the playground without a reassuring adult perspective, it can be downright terrifying. Then they turn on the news just in time to see fancy maps with color-coded states indicating that the "strain is rapidly moving at an epidemic level." When reports come in about "invisible germs mutating from animal to human" -- well, there's the making of a Stephen King novel and a kid's worse nightmare.

This is why we need to talk to our kids about the swine flu - not only to reassure them, but also to be sure they hear the right facts. But there's another plus: we can use our talks to teach our kids habits that will keep them healthier now, and for a lifetime.

Here are ways to talk about healthy habits and the swine flu (or whatever fancy numbers they now call it), without scaring the pants off your kids.


Stay calm and reassure safety.

I know you've heard that one before, but the simplest way to reduce the fear factor is just by conveying that all will be well. Take down your panic. If your child seems concerned then plop him down in front of that computer and give him a quick lesson on the CDC. Look it up together. Let him read how scientists track viruses and report that information to every doctor and hospital in the world including the President of the United States. It may assure you as well.


Follow your kid's lead.

Bring up the topic whether your kid asks about it or not. You want to plant the right facts to take down his worries. Introduce the topic with phrases like, "What have you heard?" or "Here's a note from your school about the swine flu. Let's talk." Now, calmly present facts geared to your child's level. This isn't a vocabulary drill so leave out words like "pandemic" or "outbreak," and just tell him there's a new flu that's making people sick. That's why you and the school are being cautious, so we can all stay healthy. Older kids may want more information, so supply as needed. Do point out that you can't get the swine flu by eating pork. Leave out those terrifying death-toll stats and turn off those late-breaking news stories. If your child has specific questions about germs, then try a good book such as: Germs Make Me Sick by Melvin Berger; Germs Are Not for Sharing by Elizabeth Verdick; Wash Your Hands! by Tony Ross; or Germs by Judy Oetting.




Reinforce hand washing.

The single most important health habit every child should learn is to wash those germs away. Point out that doctors deal with sick patients but rarely get sick because they wash frequently. Remind your child to wash up after using the toilet, before and after eating, after playing outside, after handling garbage, after touching used-tissues, immediately after school, and more frequently if someone is sick.

  • Make a chart as a hand-washing reminder. Just trace her hands on paper and have her slide slightly damp soap across it, and then hang it up as a visual cue.
  • Teach the 20- second rule. Washing at least twenty seconds is a hard feat for most kids so teach her to wash while s-l-o-w-l-y saying her A-B-Cs, singing the "Happy Birthday" song two times or reading a stop watch set for 30 seconds.
  • Show the "bubbly mitten-test." Tell your child to wash every part of her hands covered by her mittens while making "bubbles." The more bubbles, the more the germs are washed away. Hint: some soaps are color-tinted or designed to produce more bubbles. Find them and make the activity a fun one.
  • Use hand sanitizers. Stick a packet or bottle of hand sanitizer in your kid's backpack and encourage use whenever soap and water aren't convenient.


Teach good coughing manners.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you teach kids to cough or sneeze into their elbow. Most kids don't have tissues readily available and coughing into their hands only spreads the germs. You can then "wash the germs away" in the laundry.


Enforce the "No teeth or mouth" rule.

While we always teach our kids to share their toys, the one exception is when there's a virus. That's when the rules should change. At this time, it's OK to not share so your friend doesn't get sick. Explain that anything touching your mouth or teeth should not be shared or borrowed (like pens, cups, lollipops, popsicles, kazoos, etc). If a friend is sick (and not at home where he belongs), teach the "three-foot rule" (or "two arm lengths" for younger kids). Teach them to stand three feet from the person, and if they do cough or sneeze, just politely turn your head away at the same time.


Model healthy habits.

The fastest way kids learn habits is by copying others. Make sure you are covering your own nose and mouth when you cough, washing your hands before and after you eat, throwing those used Kleenexes away, sneezing into your elbow, eating healthy foods, and staying out of contact with others if you feel sick. Your kids are watching you -- so be the example you want them to copy.

Here's to your health!



Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

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