Dr. May Jassim Al Muraisi, Executive Director of Clinical and Service Development with Hamad Medical Corporation’s (HMC) Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) says while parents and caregivers need to encourage their children to practice good health behaviors as part of helping to stop the spread of COVID-19, it is important to remember that children look to adults for guidance on how to react to stressful events.
“If parents seem overly worried, children’s anxiety may rise, especially in children who are prone to anxious thoughts. The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious situation and we all must do our part to limit the spread of this infection. However, adults should be aware that children will react to, and follow, their verbal and nonverbal cues. What you say and do about COVID-19, including your prevention efforts, can either increase or decrease your child’s anxiety,” said Dr. Al Muraisi.
Dr. Al Muraisi says parents and caregivers should let children talk about their feelings, reframing their concerns into the appropriate perspective. She says teaching children positive preventive measures and talking with them about their fears can help reduce anxiety by giving children a sense of control over their risk of infection.
“Parents often worry that talking to children about scary social issues may increase the child’s anxiety. Knowledge is a powerful tool and it gives children some predictability in knowing what lies ahead, which can help dull anxieties. Children need factual, age-appropriate information. They require concrete instruction, but it is important not to panic or overwhelm them,” said Dr. Al Muraisi.
When talking to children about COVID-19, Dr. Al Muraisi recommends asking your child what they know about the virus and letting that guide the discussion.
“If they don’t seem too concerned, it probably isn’t necessary to have an in-depth conversation about it. Reinforce the importance of handwashing and model the correct handwashing technique for your child. Talk to them about personal space and tell your child to avoid people who are sick (coughing and sneezing). Tell your child to let you know if they are feeling unwell, but it isn’t necessary to go overboard with information,” said Dr. Al Muraisi.
“However, if your child voices worry or concern, correct any misinformation and provide them with emotional support. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information you provide. Watch for signs of stress. In younger children, signs of stress can range from excessive crying or irritation to returning to behaviors they have outgrown, like bedwetting. In older children and teens, stress often manifests as excessive worry or sadness, acting out, and unexplained headaches or body pain,” added Dr. Al Muraisi.
She says very young children, for example, those under the age of three years old, will have a limited ability to understand information about COVID-19 but they can still experience the effects of stressful events in their environment, underscoring the importance of talking about the virus calmly and matter-of-factly.
“It is important to use age-appropriate language. Try to avoid exposing children to media reports about COVID-19, as this can elevate their stress. News programs are intended for adults, not children. Monitor their online activity,” said Dr. Al Muraisi.
Dr. Al Muraisi says while it can be difficult, particularly in the wake of widespread closures and event cancellations, it is important to stick to regular activities and routines, as much as possible.
“When possible, follow your family’s normal routine for things like meals, naps, baths, and bedtime. This increases predictability for kids. Spend time doing activities that promote calm in your family, like reading together, watching movies, or playing board games. Try to avoid large increases in screen time as this can interfere with children’s well-being and sleep,” added Dr. Al Muraisi.
The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) has established a dedicated website (www.moph.gov.qa) to provide the public with updates on the current situation as well as information on how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. A hotline (16000), which is available 24-hours a day to answer COVID-19 related queries, and an educational social media campaign have also been launched, with the MoPH, HMC, and Primary Health Care Corporation (PHCC) sharing infographics and videos through their social media channels.