No one knows if swine flu will become a horrible pandemic. That uncertainty leaves parents with worries that have no end. How can parents help themselves and their children?
"It's calming to prepare," says Peter Sandman, a risk communications expert in Princeton, N.J., who advises government health agencies on pandemic preparations. He's also the father of three grown children. "People need to be involved in trying to cope." And for most of us, being told to wash our hands isn't enough involvement to banish fear. Sandman told me five sensible actions that can help parents and kids feel better (see below). He also explained that children need to be told different things about swine flu, depending on their age:
Very young children pick up that parents are nervous. So parents need to acknowledge that, Sandman says. "You just want to say, 'Yeah, we're all a little nervous because there's this new flu, and nobody knows much about it yet, but don't worry, sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy are going to take care of you.'"
School-aged children need parents to listen to them. "You give them a chance to tell you what they've heard and what they think and what's worrying them," Sandman says. "If they're off base, you can set them straight. If they're legitimately worried, you can sympathize with them." Parents can explain that there are very talented experts working to keep a pandemic from happening, and that Mommy and Daddy are also working to keep it from happening. You can say something like, "That's why we're making you wash your hands so much, that's why we bought extra food. Yeah, you're right to worry about that, but we'll all get through this together," Sandman says.
Here are the five sensible things parents can do now for the family:
The American Psychological Association recommends managing worries by communicating with children in age-appropriate ways, having a family pandemic plan, and perhaps stocking up on supplies. Staying connected to friends and family will help too, even if it's just to vent about the frustrations of living with uncertainty.