How to talk to your kids about COVID-19 stigma

·3 min read

As we become more aware of the dangers of social stigma around COVID-19, talking to kids about it is more important than ever, an Edmonton psychologist says.

Susan Bauld works with children and adolescents in her practice.

"In an outbreak, or in this case global pandemic, this may mean that people are labelled, stereotyped or even discriminated against because of a perceived link to the disease," Bauld said.

At a news conference this week, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Albertans can't let stigma get in the way of seeking testing or medical care, or affect them in other ways.

"Albertans cannot avoid testing because it's inconvenient or because they don't want to get their party host in trouble," Hinshaw said. "They cannot fear that a positive result will make them unpopular with their friends."

Bauld, who was interviewed this week on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM, said it's important that children are reminded that people may not have done anything wrong to contract COVID-19.

It's also important that children are taught it isn't right to judge people just because they have the virus.

If children themselves end up getting COVID, Bauld said, it's even more important for them to know it may not have been their fault.

COVID-19 stigma seems to be based on a couple different things, she said.

"It's a new disease for which there are so many unknowns and often we're afraid of the unknown and stigma develops because of fear and uncertainty about something we don't fully understand.

"Especially during times of increased stress, I think it's easier to associate that fear with others as a way of trying to protect ourselves."

These factors can drive people to hide the illness or hide information to avoid discrimination.

"Kids really look to adults for advice on how to respond during periods of stress," Bauld said. "So adults can help kids understand the importance of treating all people with dignity by trying to model acceptance and compassion."

Bauld said getting kids accurate information about how the virus is contracted is really important, too.

"When we feel anxious or scared, we may look for someone to blame. But it's important, especially in discussion with kids and teens, to focus on facts and evidence and not let our fear take over," Bauld said.

Depending on the child's age, Bauld said parents could explore how the child would feel if they were unfairly blamed for something that happened, even though they had tried to do the right thing.

"When we tie abstract things back to our kids' personal experience, it can make it much more meaningful for them," she said.

Another tip Bauld mentioned was to try and also talk about positive things like what measures are being taken to slow the spread of the virus so that you're not always talking about big, scary concepts.

"I think to help build feelings of safety, reminding kids and teens that there are many adults in their lives who care deeply about them and who will do all they can to ensure that they stay safe and will take care of them if they do become ill."