How to talk to teens about the new coronavirus

By | March 15, 2020

We seem to be stuck in a nonstop news cycle about the new coronavirus that is causing an illness called COVID-19. Many parents are understandably sharing concerns, too — at least among friends and families. It’s also possible that teenagers are talking to their own friends and surfing the web and social media sites to gather information, including potential misinformation.

How can you make sure teenagers are informed just enough without feeling overwhelmed, yet also have accurate information? Your teen already may be asking many questions. Even if not, it might be a good idea to find out what your teen has heard in case you need to clarify information and ask them if they have any worries. (If you have younger children, see my blog on talking to children about coronavirus.)

If you have your own questions about the new coronavirus, check reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which offers a range of information about the virus. The World Health Organization’s myth busters page can help you give correct answers to some surprising questions and misinformation that is spreading.

Answering questions teens may have about the new coronavirus

Before you start, ask what your child knows so far in case you need to clarify anything, and find out what questions your child has. Below are some questions teens might ask about the new coronavirus and some suggested responses.

What caused this new coronavirus?

Coronaviruses cause the common cold and the flu. This coronavirus is believed to have started in animals and then passed on to humans at a live animal market in China.

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Why now?

This is actually not the first time that there has been a widespread virus that started in animals and spread to humans. Another example is the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 that was caused by a different coronavirus. That virus eventually was contained. Doctors, scientists, and government officials are working hard to do the same with this newest coronavirus.

One reason why we are hearing more about this virus is because of how fast it is spreading and how much it has affected people in many different countries. Another reason is that we also have many more ways of sharing information than we did in 2002, and posts now have the ability to “go viral” themselves. If you notice that you are becoming distressed after reading all of the posts about the virus, then it might be helpful to limit how much you read about the virus in the news and on sites or apps, to be informed just enough.

Can our pets get sick?

There is little evidence that domesticated pets, including dogs and cats at home, are likely to get sick from this new coronavirus, or spread the virus.

Can you die from the new coronavirus?

Most people — probably more than 95% and possibly more than 99% — who have gotten sick from the new coronavirus have not died. The death rate is likely even lower than has been reported in the news because, just like with the flu, some people with mild cases of the virus may not have gone to the doctor to get tested.

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Will my school close because of concerns regarding the new coronavirus?

Some communities may decide to temporarily close places, including schools, to give communities affected by illness caused by the virus a chance to prevent it from spreading quickly. This has happened before when some schools have had high rates of other viruses, including the norovirus. Those schools reopened later. If your school makes the decision to close temporarily, we will hear more about that.

Should we stay home to remain safe, so we don’t catch the new coronavirus?

People who are infected with the new coronavirus are asked to stay home for about two weeks. Also, people who might have been exposed to the virus are asked to stay home for a period of time to make sure they don’t develop any symptoms of the virus.

If you don’t have the virus, then you should continue to do what you need and love to do. Practice the same everyday healthy habits that you would (or should) do anyway. You’ll be on track if you:

  • Sneeze or cough into tissues (and throw them away) or sneeze or cough into your elbow. These behaviors help keep germs from traveling and making other people sick.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose. When you wash your hands, remember to count slowly to 20.
  • Try to avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose, which are places where the germs can enter your body.
  • Try to get enough sleep and eat well to help your body stay healthy.
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Additional tips for supporting your teen

  • Remind teens that everyone is working hard to manage the virus.
  • Although it may seem difficult, it is important to model calmness. Teens will look to parents to gauge how worried they should be, even though it may seem like they just tune you out!
  • Show your teens that it’s possible to continue to do what is important to you while practicing healthy behaviors.
  • If it becomes necessary to adjust plans, be transparent and direct with your teen so that they understand the rationale behind the decision. For example, if you have to postpone travel because of new advice about safe travel, then let your teen know that. Check the CDC travel advisories for up-to-date information. You can add that the trip was postponed because it was not a necessary trip, and that the family will continue to do what is necessary each day.

For additional information, see our blog on what parents should know and do about the coronavirus and our Coronavirus Resource Center.

Harvard Health Blog