Helping children and teens cope with fear and uncertainty of swine flu

Children and teens need their parents help in coping with fear and uncertainty as 2009 H1NI virus (swine influenza A) spreads amid intense media coverage and school closings.

Michele C. Thorne, Ph.D., Riley Hospital for Children clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine, advises parents to discuss transmission and treatment of swine flu with their teens and younger children.

Children aren't ready to be saddled with adult burdens but they cannot be sheltered from them. "Parents should talk with their children and teens and find out what they know about how the disease can be caught and how worried they are. If the child has erroneous information, believing, for example, that it can be caught from eating pork, parents should correct it. The child also should be reassured that precautionary measures will minimize the likelihood of infection," said Dr. Thorne.

It is difficult for children and even young teens to deal with the enormity of the flu outbreak. The frontal lobe, the part of the brain that handles planning, attention, concentration and reasoning isn't fully developed until late adolescence or early adulthood. Or, as Dr. Thorne puts it, the "main onboard computer" which directs how an individual makes decisions isn't fully programmed in children and teens.

"It's best to talk with your children frequently about what is going on and to explain how the family is dealing with it. They should be reminded to wash their hands frequently and not to share food or beverages with friends. Teens should be strongly cautioned about physical contact with others. Perhaps they could be advised to send creative e-kisses rather than actual kisses," she said.

She also advises parents to encourage their children to tell them if they don't feel well and to reassure them that treatments are available for swine flu.

For parents of children who appear overly concerned about catching the disease, for example constantly cleaning toys or expressing excessive worry about germs, Dr. Thorne suggests consulting the child's doctor to see if a mental health consultation might be useful.

"You don't want to make your child more anxious than they already are, but this type of thing can trigger symptoms of anxiety in any child and for a child with obsessive compulsive disorder could trigger symptoms of the disorder," said Dr. Thorne.

Dr. Thorne's research focuses on the relationship between psychological thriving and coping processes. Riley Hospital and the IU School of Medicine are located on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

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