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How to Talk to Your Child (and Yourself) About Ebola

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Dad, you’re coughing, what if you have a fever? What if it’s Ebola? What’s going to happen to you?!? What if we catch it? What are we going to do?!?

And there it is. This moment that will be happening in every household across the country at one time or another: your young child is asking for the reassurance that you’re not exactly sure how to give, not sure you can give—because truly, you’re scared too. This is the other challenge Ebola poses: in our imaginations it threatens our basic sense of security, our sense of life as we know it. Though we know perfectly well that our sniffles or stomachache from work stress are not this dreaded virus ravaging West Africa right now, but as New York Times writer Frank Bruni describes in a recent Op-Ed piece, “We Americans do panic really well.”

We may break into a sweat as the jolt of the power of suggestion— the idea of Ebola— works its way—fast and furious—through our system. Like the mention of poison ivy or lice makes us feel suddenly itchy all over—for a moment, our logic is in a holding cell and our amygdala—or worry brain—has run away with our senses. Invented scenarios borrowed from round-the-clock news items set our hearts racing, and shock waves of fear running through our body. In a flash, we see ourselves, our loved ones facing a deadly virus and for that moment we are stopped in our tracks. But, fortunately while the amygdala has hijacked our emotions, our fact checker brain can step forward and remind us: This is not happening to us. And likely, it won’t.

The problem facing most Americans is not the Ebola virus, it’s our anxiety about the Ebola virus.

Yes, we are good at panicking, but we are also good at steadying ourselves and being smarter than our worry, and this is our opportunity to get even better at that. We need to take charge, nudge ourselves compassionately out of the fight or flight program that’s running our system and switch to our other instinct, to protect and connect and empathize with those who need it: the families suffering terribly with violent illness and painful loss, the tremendous courage of health care and relief workers and the military who are putting themselves on the front lines to protect us.

So while international health organizations such as Doctors without Borders are working on bringing the raging spread of Ebola in West Africa under control, and the CDC and healthcare professionals are working diligently to contain the potential spread of Ebola in the United States, our job is to do an amygdala reset and contain our anxiety.  Isolate ourselves from it. See that while Ebola is very hard to catch, anxiety is highly contagious and debilitating. We who have the luxury of only contending with the specter of Ebola in our minds have another job to do. We owe it to ourselves, our kids and the people of the world, to be diligent anxiety managers. Anxiety makes us unnecessarily alarmed, but more than that, by consuming our emotional resources, it blocks our empathy for the actual victims—those who are suffering, grieving and mourning the loss of loved ones.  

This is something that is serious and frightening and tragic for many people in West Africa, but the vast, vast majority of us are not in harm’s way at this time. As President Obama said in a recent speech, “I shook hands with hugged and kissed a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work they did in treating the patients. I felt perfectly safe doing so. This is not a situation in which, like a flu, that the risks of rapid spread of the disease are imminent. If we do the protocol properly and follow the steps, then the likelihood of widespread Ebola outbreak in this country are very very low.”

This is the starting point that we need to keep well in mind when our children come to us having heard snippets of information about Ebola and can’t sleep at night or are washing their hands excessively because they are afraid they are going to catch Ebola. In order to best help our kids (and ourselves) we need to get grounded in the facts instead of our fears. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Calm yourself first  There isn’t an urgent need to speak to your children about the Ebola virus because there is nothing they need to do differently at this time. Wait until you have a quiet moment, and have contained your own anxiety, so you can talk with your kids without them mistaking your fear or distress as a measure of the actual level of danger in the situation. Kids will read your facial expressions and your tone of voice to interpret what is actually happening and may get a very different message from the one that they need.

Start with what your child already knows Rather than launch into a lot of details that may be over your child’s head or not on their minds and inadvertently stir up new fears that weren’t on their radar, ask your child if they’ve heard about the Ebola virus and if they have any questions. If your child is under five, or not in school, and therefore doesn’t have exposure to other kids talking about Ebola, there is not a need to bring up the topic.

State the facts and put the risk in context  Speak with confidence about your child’s own safety, help them understand that this is a serious situation but one where they are at a very low risk and where it is very encouraging to see how people across the world—doctors, the military, humanitarian organizations and regular people like you and me— are coming together to make sure that those who are struggling or sick are getting what they need, and that the virus is contained and not spread.

A script like this may help: Ebola is a rare virus that is very, very hard to catch. You can’t catch it through the air or by touching things, so you can’t catch it by doing the things you do now. The only way you can catch it is by having contact with fluids like vomit and diarrhea of people who are already very sick with the virus. So the people most at risk are those taking care of people who are sick and in the hospital. That’s why hospital workers wear protective masks and gowns so that they don’t get sick, and sometimes they even keep people who they think might get sick, in a safe place in the hospital so that they don’t get others sick by accident, and so that they can get help if they need it. It’s called “quarantine.” Hospitals and the Center for Disease Control are constantly working to improve methods to keep every one safe—other patients, doctors, and nurses. The risk to people outside of these situations is small.

Ebola is not new: Doctors and scientists have been studying it, learning how to prevent it, control it and treat patients with it since 1976. It’s not everywhere: Up to this point it has only ever been in certain parts of Africa. There are now a few cases in the United States and Spain.

Remove responsibility by identifying experts Just as we as adults can experience that rush of fear and powerlessness with the picture in our minds of us vs. the virus, we need to back up and do a reality check. Let your child know that here are hundreds and thousands of people such as doctors, nurses, scientists, and the military whose job it is to contain this virus, and to keep us safe, and they are constantly on the job improving their methods to do so.    

No extra precautions required We need to underscore for our children that there is nothing they need to do differently to be safe at this time. They don’t have to be worried about getting close to other people or touching common items at school or at home, or out in public. The same common sense measures that you had in place to keep your family safe two months ago are all that is needed at this time.

Turn off the television It is hard enough for adults to keep straight that our risk is still low even though we are seeing minute-by-minute reports on the Ebola situation on the television. The news is not rated “G,” so turn it off and let your kids get the facts from you. Your agenda of their safety and security is more suited to their needs than networks need to increase the number of viewers.

Normalize fear and uncertainty and encourage resilience in the face of changing needs  Let your child know that it’s okay to feel afraid, but feeling afraid doesn’t mean that you are in danger. No matter how scared you feel, it doesn’t change the facts of your low risk of being impacted by Ebola. If your child asks—well, what if things change, what if more people in this country do contract Ebola? You can say; “Yes this is a dynamic situation, but that doesn’t prevent us from protecting ourselves. We can be sure—and this is already occurring—that as new risks and circumstances arise, the authorities involved will continue to do their job to respond to those changes, as well as to be proactive in identifying other potential risks. We’ve had to make changes in our routines before. (For older children you can explain: We know from our experience after 9-11 with shoe removal at airports and other protocols that we will do what we need to do to be safe.) It is possible that at some point it will be in everyone’s best interest to institute such measures as health checkpoints at airports or elsewhere, and we will adjust to this change in lifestyle as well.

Cultivate empathy, gratitude and build connections  This is an opportunity to teach your children to empathize: You can imagine with them the heartbreak for families who are suffering with illness and loss and take the opportunity to extend support—whether that’s through thoughtful reflection, prayer, or making charitable donations. You and your children may also think of the incredible bravery of medical and military personnel who are tirelessly and selflessly rushing in to support the containment effort to protect all of us. Compassion and gratitude feel good for the giver, but are an important way to appreciate those who are fighting day in and day out for our safety. Even though the bulk of this battle is being fought elsewhere, the legions of the healthy really can make a difference.    

What to do to help? There is great power in numbers. Organizations in the United States and around the world have begun sending shipments of supplies to address the lack of adequate medical supplies in Liberia and other African countries. Click here for some encouraging examples to share with your child. They may be interested to know of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg donating $25 million for Ebola efforts, or Bill Gates donating $50 million to support the United Nation’s efforts. You may decide as a family to make a contribution to an organization such as the American Red Cross, or Doctors without Borders, or the United Nations Foundation, or UNICEF that is targeting efforts to treat and contain Ebola. Your child may wish to donate their allowance one week or dig in the couch cushions, car seats, or the bottom of your purse for loose change to put together with your contribution to support the efforts.

Doctors without Borders also has a Facebook page where they are asking supporters to leave messages of encouragement for their staff working on Ebola treatment in West Africa. This is something that families can do together.

So as much as this is a time of crisis and vigilance, it is our very good fortune to live in the United States where we have access to clean water, medicine, all the supplies we need and the best health care in the world. This is what our children, and we ourselves, can remember when worry floods our thoughts with ideas like: Ebola! It’s scary! Wash your hands! Don’t touch anything! It’s dangerous! Rather than trusting our worry, we can come back with the facts: It’s serious and scary, and it needs to be contained, but nothing is happening to me. Doctors and health care workers are working hard to keep every one safe, but there’s nothing I need to do differently now. Medical professionals are working on controlling the spread of the Ebola virus. My job is to work on controlling my worry.

If you’d like to learn more about how to talk with your children about real-life fears or how to teach your child to take charge of their worry in general, you can check out my new book, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: The Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias from Toddlers to Teens and Be Prepared for Life!  Harmony Books, 2014.

©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014 No part may be copied without permission from author. Previously published on Psychology Today.