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Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician and Board Chair of Starlight

Coronavirus Q&A with the Worry Proof MD

We sat down with pediatrician, author, mom, and Starlight Board Vice Chair Dr. Cara Natterson to talk about the coronavirus pandemic and to get expert answers to our burning questions.  

1. The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives. We've been separated from extended family and friends and learning new ways to cope with the isolation, stress, and anxiety that's come with this new normal. For parents, how can we best help our kids adjust?

In pediatrics, we have always said They do as we do, not as we say. So, put on your own life preserver first!  

  • Eat well, exercise, engage in self-care.  

  • Show them how you cope with stress and encourage them to follow suit.  

  • Teach them some cooking skills that involve healthy foods; go for daily walks (with masks on, please), and get into bed at a regular time each night.  

 Some of this is easier with older kids – as are many things during quarantine (like home school!) – but even if you have young ones, you’ll make an impact.  

As important is to put down your devices and be present with your kids. Again, age-old advice. But now more than ever, when we are all trying to balance everything under a single roof, by putting devices away you are showing your kids that they are the only ones you want to be engaging with at the moment. That’s powerful. It also feels better to everyone. 

2. If a child expresses fear about COVID-19, how can parents and caregivers explain what is happening while providing comfort? What is the simplest, but most direct way to explain to kids what COVID-19 is and how it's changed our lives?

You need to meet your kids where they are, emotionally and developmentally.  

So, if you have a teenager, information is power. Talk about the virus, share facts about current data, and explain the consequences of ignoring social distancing requirements. If you aren’t sure about this information yourself, read articles together – or at the very least forward them to your kids and read them yourself, separately.  

If you have preschoolers or early grade-schoolers, less is more. They neither want nor need a lesson on coronavirus. One of the most effective ways of explaining the current situation is to liken the virus to a cold that’s going around school, except in this case it’s going around the whole world and everyone is staying home to make it better.  

For kids in-between those ages, the answer lies in between. It’s extremely helpful to understand what they are asking when they have a question. So, if they pose something to you, it helps to reply That’s so interesting – what made you think of that? This helps you narrow down the focus of their question, giving them what they need in response but not so much that you have overwhelmed them. (Fun fact: this also works very well when they ask about sex!)

3. As we enter yet another week at home, what tips and tricks do you recommend for keeping everyone sane, maybe even running off a bit of energy?  

Acknowledge that this feels like Groundhog Day, with weeks and weekends blending together. Own up to the fact that everyone misses something or someone in the outside world, and then list what that thing is.  

 And then try to pivot.  

Come up with one new idea, something you haven’t tried yet that might make life a little more fun (or at least less monotonous).  

  • Go online to gather suggestions from other parents.  

  • Try learning a new dance as a family; cooking a new meal;  

  • Or mastering a new household project.  

This is hard, but it’s also important to talk about how much harder it may be for other people, particularly those who don’t have homes to be stuck in or those who are ill.

4. How can parents and caregivers explain to kids that, while being stuck at home may be annoying, this virus is very serious and is affecting others in a life-threatening way?  My kids have had trouble understanding why there are hospitalized kids who are immunocompromised and adults very ill with COVID-19, while they are unaffected.

This is a tough one because you want to build empathy and awareness in your kids, but you don’t want to create anxiety.  

Every parent/kid pair communicates differently. You may need to try different approaches over time to help land the message.  

It’s hard to see the seriousness when we aren’t seeing much more than our family members and a few of our favorite shows, so reach beyond your bubble occasionally and video chat with people from other communities or folks having other experiences to shed some light here.

5. Right now, there are thousands of seriously ill kids in the hospital, more isolated and more scared than ever before. Hospital resources are being directed to COVID-19 patients, kids are sharing wards with adults, and doctors in hazmat suits invoke fear. They can't have their family with them, visitors are limited to one person, and social interaction with other patients, or in the ward playrooms, is now nonexistent. These kids are alone and scared more than ever. Isolation while hospitalized can have many adverse effects on a child's long-term development.

This is all to ask how can parents of seriously ill kids provide comfort to them as they experience this terrible situation?

Such a tough question. Parents of seriously ill kids already have superpowers that many other parents don’t. They are resilient because they have had to manage medical, social, and emotional issues most people have never considered.  

When you layer on top of this having a sick child who is alone, not getting the child-centered care that so many of us have come to count on, it’s heartbreaking. Just being there – yes, even virtually – counts for everything. As strong these parents are, their kids are oftentimes even stronger.  

Have faith in the fact that they understand the circumstances… and if you are not sure that they do, explain it as best possible.  

But know that they can feel the love and support through chats and texts and memes. That first hug will be priceless.

6. Creating hand-crafted cotton masks - yes or no?

Yes. Any facial covering at all – homemade or store-bought, tells the world that I protect you and you protect me.  

Masks reduce the spread of infections including coronavirus. Cotton homemade masks may not be perfect, but our healthcare workers need hospital-grade supplies right now, not individuals walking down the street

7. When can we schedule our kids' routine doctor's appointments?

Call your pediatrician about this one.  

Most doctors are continuing to see infants and toddlers, particularly so that they can remain up to date on their vaccines.  

The visits may happen at certain hours during the day or in special rooms designated just for check-ups. Your doctor may do some of the visit by phone or video chat to minimize your time in the office.  

Other offices are able to accommodate older kids as well, so make sure to check in and see what your child’s doctor is doing at the moment. And if a check-up does get postponed, don’t forget to book the appointment in the near future!

8. Will COVID-19 be back annually? 

No one knows yet what the pattern for coronavirus will be.  

Many researchers hope that it will spread less rapidly – and therefore cause less COVID-19 – during the warm summer months, but there’s a chance that the heat won’t make an impact.  

Likewise, there’s a theory that coronavirus will come back in the fall or winter, and we will need to shut down again. Nobody knows for sure whether this will happen either, but if you look at what happened with the Spanish Flu 100 years ago, that was the pattern.  

As a result, we need to be prepared for another wave of infections. 

9. What are your recs for those looking for mental health resources around COVID-19?   

This is a great resource.  

One of the silver linings with staying at home is that mental health resources have become more available for lots of people. That’s partly because video chat has been allowed in ways it wasn’t before; it’s also because if you can call a mental health provider, you don’t have to work out the logistics of getting to and from the visit. Which is all a way of saying this: coronavirus is creating all sorts of stressors and so if you need mental health help, it is likely available. Reach out to a counselor or therapist you know or use some of these online resources to find one.  

10. We know that this situation is stressful for parents as well as kids. What is your favorite self-care tip for parents? 

For me, it’s meditation, which can be as simple as a few minutes every day. You can use an app to guide you or just create a moment of quiet in your home. This can certainly be hard to come by many days! But the mental reset is priceless.

Would you like some tips on how to talk to kids about coronavirus? Click the button below to download.

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DR. CARA NATTERSON 

WORRY PROOF is designed to take the stress out of parenting by distilling complex science into practical advice. Cara Natterson is a pediatrician, author, go-to puberty expert, and mom. As the best-selling author of The Care and Keeping of You series, Guy Stuff, and Decoding Boys. She has become the leading voice in tween and teen health and wellness. For more information, check out worryproofmd.com. 

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