Adults are not the only ones concerned about the threat of diseases. When a major infectious disease hits the news, children are also exposed to the mounting public attention and media coverage, and many kids may feel frightened or confused.

It's common for children to feel anxious about the unknown and they will look to their parents to provide support and comfort. Children follow their parents' cues, so if mom or dad seem stressed or are constantly talking about how worried they are, a child will pick up on that. But if parents cope well, their child will also cope better.

Calm reassurance is key

The first step in helping children manage their anxiety is to address and acknowledge their fears without causing alarm or panic. Reassure your child that everyone in the family is fine and that you will all work together to stay healthy. Being calm and confident will do wonders in helping a child feel safe and secure.

Be proactive and ask your children what they have heard. This will indicate whether there are any rumors or misinformation that you need to address. Knowledge and accurate information can help children feel a sense of control, so parents should also be prepared to provide some simple, age-appropriate facts. Younger children will need equal amounts of fact and reassurance. Older kids and teens will likely have more specific questions or may need help separating fact from fiction. Although we want to shelter our children, it's important to be honest and accurate about the situation.

Ways to reduce your child's anxiety

Here are other ways parents can help ease their child's anxiety and help them stay healthy.

  • Be sure you are up to the date on the latest information, including symptoms, vaccinations and how the disease spreads. The RI Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are good resources.
  • Allow your children to express their feelings and let them know it is okay to be afraid or upset. Keep in mind that when children are uncertain about situations and feel frightened, they may need even more affection and attention.
  • Even if the family's normal routine is disrupted due to school or work closures, try and keep activities as consistent and normal as possible. Children are most comfortable when they can stick with their routines.
  • Encourage healthy behaviors - such as eating well, getting a good night's sleep, and playing outside - that can help children build a strong immune system.
  • Remind your children not to share their food or drinks with others.
  • Try to limit your child's exposure to media coverage.
  • If your children are being vaccinated, remind them why this is important and how the vaccine will help keep them safe and healthy.
  • Keep your children home when they are sick. They should remain out of school until they are free of fever for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medication.
  • Remind children of proper hand-washing as this is one of the best ways to reduce the spread of infection.

For more tips on keeping children healthy and happy, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Henry T. Sachs III, MD

Henry Sachs, MD, president of Bradley Hospital, has been an attending psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital, treating children with autism and development disabilities for more than 23 years. Dr. Sachs is also an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

In his previous role as chief medical officer at Bradley Hospital, Dr. Sachs oversaw the expansion of many clinical services including the creation of multiple partial programs and the Bradley Clinical Research Unit. In his role as the Lifespan medical director for child psychiatry and behavioral health, Dr. Sachs has worked toward creating a coordinated system-wide child behavioral health service line.