Danielle Graph, 41, from London, was doing her regular check of her daughter’s internet search history when she saw it; coronavirus. Among the usual searches for make-up tutorials and “what is skinny dipping?” her 10-year-old had also been googling the virus, which has to date officially infected more than 5,683 people in the UK (universal testing has now been halted).
“She had asked me about it previously when we heard news reports on the radio in the car; I think her interest was piqued,” Graph tells The Independent. “I like to think we have a very open relationship and she can ask me anything but from looking at her search history she is [googling] a lot more than she used to.”
Graph says she is worried about misinformation her young daughter sees online, as well as on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. “The kids also have a group chat on Whatsapp and [I know] they have been chatting about it on there,” she adds. The mother-of-two also spoke to a teacher, who said that although it hasn’t been mentioned officially at school, she has heard playground murmurings.
“At the weekend my six-year-old girl also said, ‘Chinese people are bad’ – we set the record straight on that right away. I have tried to take the sensationalism out of it all, keep it straight and simple with the facts – this is just like flu. But I have no idea [where she got that from], which is really depressing,” she says.
Talking to children about adult issues like disease, terrorism or war has never been an easy job for parents – particularly when fear is fuelled by classroom chatter and rumours. But in previous generations children’s choices were somewhat limited when it came to finding out more information. Today misinformation and hysteria can be spread online and easily accessed, leaving parents in the dark about how to talk to their children.
Sarah*, 51, says that on the handful of occasions her eight-year-old daughter has heard people talking about coronavirus on the news she “tears up”. “My daughter is now petrified,” she explains.
Martin Gregg, 42, from Bristol, says in the last couple of weeks his 11-year-old son has become obsessed with washing his hands and using hand sanitiser when he is at school or out of the house. “Maybe I should be pleased about his new levels of hygiene,” jokes Gregg. “But it doesn’t feel healthy, he is so worried about catching something. I’ve tried to put it in context and explain that even if he did catch something it is unlikely to be a big problem but the message isn’t getting through.”
Gregg says he particularly noticed when a family friend came round for dinner – the dog sneezed and they made a joke about the dog having coronavirus and his son got really upset. “We won’t be making anymore jokes, that’s for sure,” he says.
Scarlet* says her nine-year-old son has become increasingly paranoid about catching coronavirus, despite being homeschooled because of his autism. “He has been so worried. We have had sleepless nights and worn face masks for three weeks in our house.
“Obviously his worries can be magnified due to his autism, but it’s been hard work trying to get him to even leave the house,” she says.
Graph says she wants to be able to talk to her daughters but also wants to avoid whipping up hysteria, or drawing their attention to something if they don’t know about it already. “For instance when that Momo thing [in March 2019 rumours spread that a ‘Momo’ character was appearing during YouTube videos and asking them to engage in dangerous behaviour] was happening most of the kids didn’t even know about it until one mentioned it,” she says. “So we have to be careful as parents not to create the hysteria.”
Although parents might be wary about bringing up an issue, Stevie Goulding, a team leader at YoungMinds, tells The Independent: “Children and teenagers may understandably be concerned or worried by what they see, read or hear in the news or online. As a parent or carer, it’s good to talk to them honestly but calmly about what is happening, and to not ignore or shield them from what is going on in the world. Children look to adults in their life for comfort when they are distressed and will take a lead on how to view things from you.”
Diane Bales, professor of family science at the University of Georgia in the US, agrees it is important that parents are always viewed as the most reliable source of information for a child, which will sometimes mean being open about an issue.
“Depending on how old your kid is, a lot of what they’re seeing may be from social media, which is not always the most reliable source of information. You want to make sure to watch and contextualise what your child is reading or hearing. Answer their questions honestly without going into too much detail, if it’s not required,” she says.
One of the best ways to contextualise the information, says Emma Kenny, psychologist at ChannelMum, is to – without diminishing the effect the outbreak is having in China – remind them that the numbers within the UK are not huge. “Remind your child that no matter how much they hear people talking about the coronavirus, the reality is that even if they were unlucky enough it catch it, they would be ok,” she tells The Independent.
“Reassure them that germs and viruses are a natural part of life and evidence this by bringing up any coughs and sniffles that they have had in the past as this anchors them into reality and dispels any myths that they have formed.”
Emma Citron, a consultant clinical psychologist, agrees that this is the best approach: “[Reassure] them that for the majority of people the virus is no more serious than regular flu and incidents in the UK are extremely low,” she says.
But this doesn’t mean being dismissive of their fears: “Children, like some adults, can worry about current events and as parents and carers we need to be sensitive to that.”
Goulding adds: “You can start by asking them what they think is going on, if their friends are talking about it and what they are saying, and if they have any questions.”
If you think that giving your child practical strategies to cope with the fear would be more useful, Kenny says you can show them how to wash their hands thoroughly and remind them to cover their mouth when they cough and sneeze. This can be a useful reminder in health and wellness etiquette.
But you don’t need to have all the answers. A spokesperson for the NSPCC says when encountering difficult conversations with your children, ultimately they just need reassurance: “It’s OK to ask your child what they’d like you to do about the situation but it could be something where you can’t do anything at all. What you can always do is reassure and support – starting with a big hug.”
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity