How not to talk to your child about coronavirus

As Australia reports its second local transmission of coronavirus and supermarket shelves sit empty after panic buying, it's easy to forget the impact of the coronavirus fears on children.

While the government prepares for a potential pandemic, children are vulnerable to anxiety and panic because of what they see and hear around them.

Child psychologist Dr Anne McKinnon said she had seen a spike in anxious kids as young as seven coming to her about coronavirus.

Mum Fabia Ricardo made masks for her kids Zane and Alex. Picture: John Grainger
Mum Fabia Ricardo made masks for her kids Zane and Alex. Picture: John Grainger

"I'm seeing a lot of kids who are really scared and worried about it, as we all are," Dr McKinnon said.

"Children are worrying about themselves dying and family members dying. Some children feel guilty and fearful about spending time around other children that are from cultures affected by the virus," she said.

"There are a lot of rumours spreading through around schools, especially about children who have spent time in foreign countries that could be on the list."

Dr McKinnon said two of the worst things parents could do for their children were panic or dismiss their children's fears.


"I think parents need to be careful. If kids hear their parents catastrophising about the experience, they may start to catastrophise as they use their parents' reactions to frame their understanding of the world," Dr McKinnon said.

"Some parents might be saying 'don't worry about, nothing bad will happen', but the child's fear could actually grow because parents are not helping the child to think through it," she said.

Instead, the best way to help children through their fears is to help them understand the facts, put the risk into perspective and keep calm.

"The photos and news headlines are very scary for children to see - some of the pictures are quite futuristic and confronting … it's a balancing act for parents.

"They need to help the child to make sense of the experience, but not go overboard and talk about the issue all the time as this also has the potential to alarm the child and exacerbate the child's fear," she said.


Child psychologist Dr Andrew Greenfield said teaching your child basic hygiene, such as washing their hands and not touching their face, was important to keep their mind at ease.

"We need to be realistic in what we say. We don't want to scare our children," Dr Greenfield said.

"If kids get the common flu now they will tend to panic … when we start stockpiling toilet paper it's just not helpful. That won't help your kid's anxiety.

"We need to keep ourselves in check - some people are just following like sheep and the mass hysteria is probably unfounded at this point," he said.