As human beings, our fear emanates from one of two places: what we don't know and what we don't understand. For our little kiddos, that's pretty much everything! The truth of that statement is easier to understand when we realize that the majority of the processing of information in a child's brain takes place in the amygdala (the flight-or-fight part) which means simply that they're not completely logical when they are frightened. When scared, our kids are more reactionary, spontaneous and... well... panicky! So when we as parents and/or adult caretakers start to flip-out and talk doomsday prep about topics like Ebola, we basically just scare the sh*t out of our kids.
Now don't get me wrong; Ebola is a very scary virus and we do need to educate our children on how to stay safe and be aware of their actions. However, what we DO NOT need to do is talk around or to our children about our frustrations, fears and conspiracy theories regarding our personal beliefs. Discussing our thoughts and theories about who is spreading Ebola, for what reason, where it originated, what we think they should be doing to contain it, or what it might do to us or them if left unchecked is not preparing our kids, it's terrifying them. (I don't think I can handle one more frightened child saying to me: "Did you know the government brought ebola here to kill us?") Children already have wild imaginations and they love playing adult, those traits make it far too easy for children to create scenarios in their little heads that are wildly improbable (some even impossible) and serve no constructive purpose at all whatsoever in the grand scheme of keeping them safe.
As of now there are only three documented cases of Ebola in the entire United States. Although that number may grow, it is still not at a level that we as responsible, thinking adults, should be freaking our kids out over and in the process, making them twitchy, paranoid, germophobic hypochondriacs.
Though it's hard to find an upside to a situation like this, I am all about looking for the lesson and the chance to empower our kids to think and grow. In my opinion, one positive spin on this event: The heightened awareness does give us a great opportunity to teach our children how important it is to be prepared, self-aware, to observe things around us, and to practice proper hygiene!
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that in a viral breakout -- or any other time, actually -- we should not come in contact with another person's bodily fluids or excretions. (eeww!) But some kids may not know that it's not ok to let your friend sneeze in your mouth... or on your face... or openly in your general direction. But we CAN teach our children to offer a tissue (just don't take it back once it's used) to cover their own face, to wash their face and hands immediately and tell another adult if you notice that someone else doesn't seem to be feeling well.
In addition to paying attention to what our kiddos "do," we also need to be mindful of how they "think." If our children aren't feeling well, they need to be able to tell us without fear of us losing our minds. It is fine -- even important -- to let your child know that there is a virus making some people sick and we need to be extra careful and pay attention to our bodies right now. Tell them what the symptoms are in "kid language" and you may even want to right them down so they don't forget. Just don't make a huge scene about it. Aside from not wanting to upset us, kids generally dislike/loathe going to the doctor. Telling them in advance that if they feel hot or achy or stuffy or sick in their belly they need to "tell us right away so we can take them to the doctor" is probably not the best plan. It makes more sense to ask your child to let you know if they feel any of those symptoms so you can "pay extra special attention to them" until it goes away.
If kiddos believe those symptoms are just something to observe, they won't be as anxious about sharing them. In contrast, if the child believes those symptoms mean they could die -- and seriously, I am dealing with children who are getting that message from the adults in their life -- they are more likely to deny or hide those symptoms because to children, if I don't pay attention to it or if you can't see it, it doesn't exist. Therefore, it can't kill me. I know we are currently living in a stop-coddling-your-kids culture. But in light of a very real threat, we need to be more concerned with keeping our kids calm.
It's normal to be afraid of what we don't know. And it's even more normal to want to protect our children from harm at all costs, even if that means scaring the hell out of them to do it. But when it comes to the most effective prevention requiring us to be level headed, alert, educated and open... instilling panic in our kiddos in the name of safety is simply not the answer.