Information taken from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
When children watch news on TV or overhear others discussing an infectious disease outbreak, they can feel scared, confused, or anxious—just like adults. Young people react to anxiety and stress differently than adults; they may react right away or they may show signs that they are having a difficult time much later.
Very young children may express anxiety and stress by going back to thumb-sucking or wetting the bed at night. They may fear sickness, strangers, darkness, or monsters. It is common for preschool children to become clingy with their adults or want to stay in a place where they feel safe. Some children’s eating and sleeping habits may change.
Infants and toddlers (0-2) cannot understand that something bad is happening in the world, but they know when their caregiver is upset. They may start to show similar emotions as their caregivers, or they may cry for no reason or withdraw from people and not play with their toys.
Children 3-5 years old may be able to understand the effects of an outbreak. If they are very upset by news of the outbreak, they may have trouble adjusting to change. They may depend on the adults around them more to help them feel better.
Children 6-10 years old may have trouble paying attention or may become aggressive for no clear reason. Or they may act younger than their age by asking to be fed or dressed by their adult.
Children can better manage their stress in response to an infectious disease breakout with the right support from the adults around them. The most important things we can do is let children know they are loved, safe, and to help them feel connected.
Here are some steps you can take to help your child right now:
Be a good listener.
Help children express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, playing, and singing. Most children want to talk about things that make them anxious and cause them stress, so let them. Accept their feelings and tell them it is okay to feel sad, upset, stressed, or even bored. Crying is often a way to relieve stress and grief.
Allow them to ask questions.
Ask your preschooler and older children what they know about the outbreak. What are they hearing or seeing on TV? Limit access to TV or internet coverage so they have time away from news of the outbreak. Don’t let talking about the outbreak take over the family discussion for long periods of time.
Encourage positive activities.
Adults can help children see the good that can come out of an outbreak. Children may better cope with an outbreak by helping others. They can write letters to those who have been sick, for example.
Model self-care, set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and take deep breaths to handle stress. Adults can show young children how to take care of themselves. If you are in good physical and emotional health, you are more likely to be readily available to support the children you care about.
Tips for Talking with Young Children about an Infectious Disease
Be careful not to pressure children to talk about an outbreak or join in expressive activities. While most children will easily talk about the outbreak, some may become frightened. Some may even feel more anxiety and stress if they talk about it, listen to others talk about it, or look at artwork related to the outbreak. Allow children to remove themselves from these activities and monitor them for signs of distress.
Preschool Children, 0-5 years old
Give these very young children a lot of emotional and verbal support.
• Get down to their eye level and speak in a calm, gentle voice using words they can understand.
• Tell them that you always care for them and will continue to take care of them so they feel safe.
• Keep normal routines, such as eating dinner together and having a consistent bedtime.
Early Childhood to Adolescence, 6-19 years old
Nurture children in this age group.
• Ask the children in your care what worries them and what might help them cope.
• Offer comfort with gentle words or just being present with them.
• Spend more time with children than usual, even for a short while.
• If your child is very distressed, excuse them from chores for a day or two.
• Encourage children to have quiet time or to express their feelings through writing or art.
• Encourage children to participate in recreational activities so they can move around and play with others (if appropriate.)
• Address your own anxiety and stress in a healthy way.
• Let children know you care about them—spend time doing something special; make sure to check on them in a nonintrusive way.
• Maintain consistent routines, such as completing homework and playing games together.