* Judith Myers-Walls

May 5, 2009

Expert: Parents can help alleviate children's fears about flu outbreak

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Parents should assess their personal feelings about the current flu situation as they begin talking to children, and then they can determine what messages they want to communicate, says a Purdue University child development expert.

"Don't assume children don't know anything about it, but don't assume they understand everything either," says Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor, Extension specialist and certified family life educator. "Recognize that children may be afraid, but they also may be sad about other people who are facing the illness."

The spread of H1N1 (swine flu) may spark fear and questions among children of all ages, especially with reports of the first American fatality, which was a child, and schools closing in some areas.

"We've never had this fast of a response while watching a health outbreak like this develop, so we are probably more on top of it than ever before, but we are also more scared than ever before," she says.

Parents should be ready to have multiple discussions with their children and encourage them to ask questions. Children may be confused by unfamiliar words such as "pandemic" or "influenza." Myers-Walls says parents don't need to try to explain everything, but they should answer questions as they come up. They also should watch for signs that might indicate a child is struggling with the issues. Some physical indicators could include not sleeping or eating well.

"This also is an opportunity to teach children about preventive measures such as washing hands and not sharing drinking glasses with other children," she says. "Parents can approach these lessons by reminding their children these are good habits for any time. Caution is good, but it's important to keep children from getting so cautious that they are afraid to explore and learn during childhood."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Judith Myers-Walls, 765-494-2959,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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