5 Ways to Manage the Family's Swine Flu

How to reassure children in ways that really soothes their worries

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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:

  1. Be worried. It's natural to worry that your kid might have the flu, to worry that your kid might get the flu, or to worry that even if your kid doesn't get the flu the country might go through a horrible time. Those are all very reasonable things to worry about.
  2. If your child really is sick, you want to take it seriously. If your child has a fever and other flu symptoms, you need to talk to a doctor. Call and see what he or she recommends.
  3. Even if your child does get sick, you don't need to freak out. So far, the evidence is people are not getting very sick. There are two worries at the national level: 1) Swine flu could become widespread, and if millions of people get sick, even if they're not very sick, that's very hard on the country. It's hard to keep the economy going. 2) The virus could get more virulent, with more deaths. But neither of those things has happened. 
  4. Don't take your child to the hospital without talking to a doctor first. Hospitals are where people with respiratory infections go, and you don't want to expose your child to really sick people if you don't have to.
  5. Now is a very reasonable time to stock up a bit more on staples. Buy a little more soup, buy a little more tuna, buy a little more peanut butter so that you don't have to shop if your child gets sick. If you wind up wanting to stay home for a week, you want to have what you need. Let your children help you prepare by going to the store and shopping for extra food, or whatever preparations you think are appropriate. You'll all feel better. And you'll have that peanut butter!
  6. 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.