How to Talk To Your Children about the Ebola Outbreak

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Ebola outbreak is all over the news as the media focuses on the status of infected Americans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the outbreak in West Africa has infected more than 1,300 people and killed more than 900, making it one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history. Two American missionaries who worked in West Africa have been stricken with Ebola and transported to the United States for treatment. 

Infectious disease experts say there is little danger of an outbreak in the United States. While the public health risk is low to U.S. residents at this time, it is possible that patients traveling from affected areas may receive medical treatment at U.S. hospitals. Given the news coverage, children may ask questions or worry that they or their loved ones, too, might be adversely affected.

We reached out to Children’s National’s Division Chief of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, Paramjit Joshi, MD, to find out ways that parents can talk to their children about Ebola.

Parents should allow children to express their concerns and ask questions about the disease, according to Dr. Joshi.

“Acknowledge, listen, and reassure children,” she advised.

Dr. Joshi also suggested one of the most important steps parents should take is limit media coverage and monitor their children’s behavior – their emotional and physical state – to determine if they’re worried or anxious.

Below is a list of symptoms in how children express their worries depending upon their age and developmental level:

Infants and Toddlers (Birth to age 2): 
  • This age group may demonstrate fears of separation, become fussy 
  •  Infants may develop feeding and sleeping problems, and become easily startled.
Preschoolers (Age 2-6): 
  • This age group may develop fears of separation and rejection, and regressive behaviors 
  •  Preschoolers may cry uncontrollably, run aimlessly, and cling excessively because they’re afraid to be alone 
  • They may develop eating problems and exhibit confusion and irritability
School-age (Age 7-12): 
  • School-age children may display inappropriate or unpredictable behavior, deny affect (feelings) and focus on details 
  • This age group may also complain of physical symptoms, show regressive behaviors (i.e., acting younger than their age) and withdraw 
  • Whining, clinging (reluctance to leave parent or teacher)
Teenagers (age 13-18): 
  • Teens may seek a time alone and may occasionally isolate themselves from their family
  • This age group may exhibit non-specific physical problems (aches and pains) and sleep changes (nightmares, trouble falling asleep) 
  • They may also demonstrate sadness, withdrawal and isolation, and excessive fears and worry

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