It dominates the headlines and is striking fear and panic in many communities around the world, Ebola. The constant barrage of information and so much unknown can be especially difficult for children, making it all the more important for parents to help their kids feel safe and to have a dialogue with them at the appropriate developmental level.
"Parents and caregivers need to reassure children that they are safe, even though there have been cases of Ebola in the U.S. It's important for parents to keep their composure and the children's questions are a great opportunity to teach lessons about how to practice health safety and prevention during their daily routines," said Theodote Pontikes, MD, pediatric psychiatrist at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences.
She also says children of all ages need to know that medical and public health experts, as well as government officials, are working to understand the virus, develop treatments and put in place measures to protect people from it spreading.
"It's extremely important for parents to listen to their children's specific questions and to answer them in a way the child can understand. When responding, think about the child's developmental level - both cognitive and emotional," Pontikes said.
To ensure both younger and older children understand and feel safe asking questions, Pontikes suggests that parents may need to have separate conversations with their kids, possibly one-on-one. This way parents can ensure children's questions are answered in a way each child can understand.
To help children comprehend what is happening in regards to Ebola she suggests:
•Use visual images such as maps to show the origin of the virus and how few people have contracted the disease in the US.
•Explain how the US has resources such as clean water, healthy food and advanced medical care to help stop the virus from spreading. You can even talk about hospital protocols and screenings at the airports that are in place to help keep us safe.
•Talk about how the disease is spread and give them some tangible things they can do to protect themselves like correctly washing their hands.
•Let them know the virus is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids from someone who is already sick with Ebola and there are very few people here in the U.S. with the disease. Still, it's always important not to touch another person's spit, sweat, poop or pee. Don't share food, eating utensils or sharp objects such as nail files or clippers.
•Limit children's exposure to the media.
"As parents respond to children's questions, it's important to monitor their children's and their own emotional responses. They can teach kids coping skills to reduce anxiety such as deep breathing and meditation or prayer," Pontikes said.
If children exhibit the following signs, she suggests seeking guidance from a pediatrician or psychiatrist:
•Disruption to the child's eating or sleeping routine
•Exhibiting signs of significant stress, such as depressed or irritable mood
•Refusal to go to school or take part in other activities
"As we enter the cold and flu season, this also can increase children's anxiety. It's important for them to know not everyone who contracts a virus will die and, although we don't have a vaccine for Ebola yet, we do have vaccines that can keep us safe from other more common viruses like the flu," Pontikes said.
Loyola University Health System