With the outbreak of the coronavirus across the globe and most recently, in the Jewish community, comes the widespread panic and fear of the unknown. From the vantage point of mental health and management of crisis situations, it is important to consider ‘trauma inoculation’ or steps that each of us can take to prevent our anxiety and worry from turning into fear. Panic is infectious and can ripple through our families and create an atmosphere of dread among our children. Prolonged worry can also wear down the body and the brain’s resistance to distress and even illness.
Consider these steps to confronting the coronavirus:
Accurate Information: It is important to gather facts from reliable expert sources. This means not reacting to every sensationalized news report or rumor. Seek out updates, but not to the degree of obsessive and constant preoccupation with the world news, and determine whether there are credible reasons for you and your family to take precautions, or to be more alert and aware, but without becoming hyper-vigilant.
Communicate: Speak to your children about their worries. Share factual information so that they have a perspective which is accurate, recognizing that rumor control is damage control, and that anxiety runs out of control when children lack accurate information. Reassure your children. Offer perspective and do not dismiss their concerns. Rather, validate the source of their worries and support them past their fear. Encouragement, support, and reassurance are powerful tools.
Clinical Sensitivity: When children and even adults learn of a health risk, it is often easy to develop sympathetic symptoms. A common cold, a cough, an ache or nausea can all lead a young person to fear that they have “caught it,” and often they will catastrophize what might be a minor ailment into a morbid diagnosis. Recognize that anxiety often leads to both exaggerated body sensations and to an overstated interpretation of what the symptom represents. Check with your family doctor as needed, but support your child in understanding that being sick with a cold or the flu does not mean that they have contracted a deadly virus or infection. Be patient, be sensitive, and encourage your child that they will be all right, and when needed, they can arrange an appointment with the family physician.
Hygiene: It is very important that we introduce and reinforce cleanliness and proper hygiene in and out of our homes, at school, and at work. We must emphasize to our families the vital role of handwashing, bathing, use of soap, etc. This should not become a compulsive ritual, which in itself will generate more anxiety in people. Rather, a conscientious discussion about how committing to cleanliness is a wise and prudent step at this time.
Faith: As with any stress or fear besetting us, this is a time for focused prayer. Join your children in praying for this virus to be resolved. Pray for the safety and welfare of your family and friends, and others. Discuss faith within the family, learn with your children, bring HaShem into your daily discussions, and make it possible for each child and for yourselves to feel that we turn to Him at all times, including times of doubt and uncertainty.
As parents and teachers, you set the pace for your children, as their source of rational thinking, as their model of faith and religious devotion, and as their example of how we face fear and uncertainty. Embrace that role. Enjoy this task. A healthy home and a stable, cohesive family are among our finest remedies for insulating ourselves from the threats which surround us.