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Helping Kids Help Themselves During Cold and Flu Season

Published on Psychology Today.

If you’re a parent, you already know that cold and flu season means having a house full of germs that pass back and forth from person to person like a ping pong ball for months on end. I got pretty lucky when I had my son Edwin—not so much as a mild fever for the first 11 months of his life. But, as soon as November hit, my luck had finally run out.

First, Edwin woke up covered in spots from head to toe. Since this was my first experience with a sick baby, my reaction was of course FULL ON PANIC. He looked terrible—the spots were puffy red and hive-like, and they were everywhere. With many parents not vaccinating these days, my mind went immediately to the measles, and I frantically called our pediatrician. She said it was likely a virus that would go away on its own after a few weeks. A few weeks turned into a month, and a month turned into two, and he still has spots on some parts of his body. The worst part was that whatever virus caused the spots somehow got passed on to me, and a few days after the spots first appeared, so did signs that I was sick too. I started coughing, my throat hurt, and my nose was running like a faucet. I figured it was just a cold and ignored it, but after 3 weeks I finally went to the doctor who diagnosed me with bronchitis. After 10 days of antibiotics, I was still coughing, and now Edwin was coughing too, and his nose was so stuffed up that he was having trouble sleeping. Weeks later, when it finally seemed like we were both starting to feel better, my nanny called and told me that Edwin had pink eye and that I should take him to the doctor right away. This would be our 6th doctor’s visit in under 2 months.

My story might sound all too familiar to you. For many families with children, the winter often brings with it coughing, sneezing, and runny noses—enough for the entire family. This doesn’t just happen in the winter months either: Kids are germ-factories, not only because they get sick more often than adults do, but also because they are the biggest culprits of spreading germs to adults. So what do we do to keep our kids (and ourselves) healthy this cold and flu season?

One obvious thing to do is to get flu shots for the whole family; flu shots are quite effective in preventing the flu most of the time, and carry with them very few risks. But, the content of a flu shot is just scientists’ best guess at what this year’s flu might look like. Sometimes they get it wrong and you could get the flu even if you got the shot. Alternatively, we could keep our kids away from other sick kids, or keep them home from school if there is some sort of outbreak. But the truth is, we can’t be there to protect them 24-hours a day, so at some point we have to hope that our kids will play a role in protecting themselves from getting sick.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done—germs are a difficult topic for kids to understand. According to research, 4- and 5-year-olds are pretty good at listing accurate reasons for why someone might get sick, but they also make lots of mistakes, and think that bad behavior like telling lies might make them sick, and that all illnesses and injuries—including cancer, broken bones, and depression—are just as contagious as the common cold. Research on children’s behavior paints an even bleaker picture of their understanding of how we get sick, demonstrating that preschool-aged kids will happily eat applesauce that has been sneezed in, and even drink juice that has a dead bug floating inside.

So what do we do? For those of us that have infants, we just have to tough it out and hope that our little ones’ immune systems will come out stronger and not worse for the wear. But research from my own lab suggests that we might be able to teach kids as young as age 4 some healthy habits if we give them the right kind of information about germs. It turns out that kids don’t learn much if you just teach them a list of dos and don’ts, like “wash your hands before you eat,” or “don’t go near your sister because she’s sick” or (a personal favorite of my own mom’s) “don’t go outside without a hat.” The key is to explain why something like washing your hands or not touching someone who is contagious might be useful. In other words, if we want to encourage healthy habits, we have to teach kids about how germs might make us sick, including how germs can move from one person to another, and how they could be transferred from sick people to toys or food. In my lab, we found that 4- to 7-year-old kids who knew that touching a sick person might make them sick later were the ones who avoided touching the toys of an experimenter who they thought might have a cold. Importantly, the age of the child didn’t matter—even the youngest kids who happened to know that interacting with a sick person could make them sick avoided the potentially sick experimenter. The implication here is that even kids as young as 4 and 5 are capable of learning how germs are spread; most of them just haven’t yet.

This research has a practical message for how we can help kids starting around the age of 4 or 5 to avoid catching a cold—or worse, the flu—from other sick kids. Namely, we should try to avoid spouting out rules about how to protect themselves without providing an explanation for why a certain behavior (like washing your hands before eating) might keep them healthy. This is a good news for us parents: If what kids need to develop healthy habits is the right kind of information about germs, then we don’t have to do all the work in protecting them from getting sick ourselves. In the end, talking to them about germs and how germs spread might be the most effective strategy in promoting healthy behaviors, giving kids the opportunity to play an active role in keeping themselves healthy this cold and flu season.

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