With the newest case of Ebola diagnosed in New York, there is no shortage of news coverage and fear surrounding this development and no doubt children are being exposed to the information either from the news or from peers at school. Without an adult to help them understand, many children can end up feeling anxious and afraid about what is happening. Here are a few tips to help ease a child's fears:
Ask them what they know. This is often the same way a child life specialist might start a dialogue with a patient about a new diagnosis or a test they have to have done. By letting them tell you what they understand about Ebola it allows the adult to clear up misconceptions and dispel rumors the child may have heard.
Explain what is happening in terms they can understand. Ebola is contracted differently than something like the flu. Explain to the child how someone might get it and that it's not something they would easily contract unless they have been in contact with someone who has it and is showing symptoms, with the odds of that type of exposure happening to the child very rare.
Be aware of media overload and make adjustments where necessary. Children may have a hard time understanding what they see and hear on TV so be mindful of limiting the amount of media exposure they are getting. This can be difficult with older children who have access to news on their smartphones as well as getting news from social media and peers. It may be that an older child may need to take a break from social media when the information gets overwhelming.
Encourage ongoing communication about the things they hear. The news and the fear about Ebola is not going away anytime soon so let the child know they can come to you with any questions they have, even if it is the same question they've already asked.
Focus on the positives. I am reminded of the quote from Mr. Rogers where he says his mother would remind him to "look for the helpers" when there were scary things in the news. This is one of those times when we can talk about the helpers with children and the brave people who have traveled to Africa to help those who need the most help.
Most of all, validate their feelings. Saying something as simple as "I can see this is worrying you. Let's talk about it so I can help you understand what is going on" can help a child feel listened to and will help encourage open communication.