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Talking With Children: Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers During Infectious Disease Outbreak

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) has provided a great resource for parents, caregivers, and teachers to talk with children about infectious disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 global pandemic. Click here to download the full guide.

What You Should Know

When children and youth watch news on TV about an infectious disease outbreak, read about it in the news, or overhear others discussing it, they can feel scared, confused, or anxious—as much as adults. This is true even if they live far from where the outbreak is taking place and are at little to no actual risk of getting sick. Young people react to anxiety and stress differently than adults. Some may react right away; others may show signs that they are having a difficult time much later. As such, adults do not always know when a child needs help. This tip sheet will help parents, caregivers, and teachers learn some common reactions, respond in a helpful way, and know when to seek support.

Possible Reactions to an Infectious Disease Outbreak

Many of the reactions noted below are normal when children and youth are handling stress. If any of these behaviors lasts for more than 2 to 4 weeks, or if they suddenly appear later on, then children may need more help coping. Information about where to find help can be found in the full guide, available for free via the SAMSA website.

How Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers Can Support Children in Managing Their Responses to Infectious Disease Outbreaks

With the right support from the adults around them, children and youth can manage their stress in response to infectious disease outbreaks and take steps to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy. The most important ways to help are to make sure children feel connected, cared about, and loved.

  • Pay attention and be a good listener. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, playing, and singing. Most children want to talk about things that make them anxious and cause them stress—so let them. Accept their feelings and tell them it is okay to feel sad, upset, or stressed. Crying is often a way to relieve stress and grief.

  • Allow them to ask questions. Ask your teens what they know about the outbreak. What are they hearing in school or seeing on TV? Try to watch news coverage on TV or the Internet with them. Also, limit access so they have time away from reminders about the outbreak. Don’t let talking about the outbreak take over the family or classroom discussion for long periods of time.

  • Encourage positive activities. Adults can help children and youth see the good that can come out of an outbreak. Heroic actions, families and friends who travel to assist with the response to the outbreak, and people who take steps to prevent the spread of all types of illness, such as hand washing, are examples. Children may better cope with an outbreak by helping others. They can write caring letters to those who have been sick or lost family members to illness; they can organize a drive to collect needed medical supplies to send to affected areas.

  • Model self-care, set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and take deep breaths to handle stress. Adults can show children and youth how to take care of themselves. If you are in good physical and emotional health, you are more likely to be readily available to support the children you care about.

When Children, Youth and Parents, Caregivers, or Teachers Need More Help

In some instances, children may have trouble getting past their responses to an outbreak, particularly if a loved one is living or helping with the response in an area where many people are sick. Consider arranging for the child to talk with a mental health professional to help identify the areas of difficulty. If a child has lost a loved one, consider working with someone who knows how to support children who are grieving.

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