Dr. Marc Siegel: Children and coronavirus — this is what you should tell them

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When Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Sunday that Americans need to “hunker down significantly more” to fight coronavirus and avoid a worst-case scenario, the fear quotient rose significantly.

Americans are practicing more social distancing, hand washing and restricting travel. Still, the number of reported cases rising here is over 2,000 with many thousands more suspected, and hospitals in the Northeast are beginning to fill with patients on ventilators, not all of whom are elderly or otherwise sick.

Everyone is nervous and worried that we will be the next Italy, a country on lockdown with 21,157 cases and 1,441 deaths, 368 of them over the past day.

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If we are worried, that means our children are worried, and the question comes up over and over, what to tell them?

For starters, as I wrote in my book, "False Alarm, the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear," if we show our children that we are worried or unsure, then they will worry too. Which is not to say that we should hide the truth or pretend that all is OK. But if we demonstrate courage or the ability to laugh or love in the face of a looming threat, our children will see that too and emulate it.

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We should be honest with our children, but not constantly harp on the worst-case scenario. Teaching them proper hygiene and social distancing in the face of a serious spreading respiratory virus is a good thing no matter what.

It is deeply disturbing that some of our teens and young adults are out partying at bars and concerts late at night or take cheap discounted planes around the country even while many of the rest of us restrict our movements, engage in social distancing, wash our hands carefully, disinfect surfaces and insert elbow bumps instead of handshakes and hugs. Partying instead is the kind of denial I can understand, but not what we should be teaching our children.

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We should tell them that we will get through this, that schools will reopen, that life will return to normal. Tell them that we have been through worse, that this country was created in the name of freedom, rose from the ashes of the Civil War, and rode to the rescue in World War I and II and helped to save the world. We restricted our freedoms during WWII in the name of the war effort, and we can do it now too.

We are a proud people, and we rise to the occasion and vanquish our enemies, including contagions. We have beaten polio here, and smallpox, and measles, and we will beat this coronavirus.

Teach our children that when we are afraid we over personalize our risks and jump right away to the worst-case scenario. Teach them that words matter, and to avoid fear words like “sweep across” or “deadly” or “devastating” when describing this virus. Too many are using these words every second already, in social media, on the Internet, in newspapers, and on cable news, and we don’t need to add to it.

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Most of all, we need to teach our children that all strong emotions course through the same brain centers. Have you ever noticed that you can’t laugh or love or be courageous AND afraid at the same time? If you can get your children to laugh, they will be less afraid. If they feel your courage then they will be brave too.

Tell them we all need to come together to beat this virus, as we have overcome national challenges before. Tell them we intend to win, and we will.

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