Conversations with Kids: Understanding Ebola

It’s here. In our backyard. In Dallas, Texas. If your children attend a school, watch television, or go online, they’ve heard about Ebola. Although medical experts don’t yet have a cure for this often fatal disease, they do know a lot about the Ebola virus. We’re all a little worried, even fearful, and understandably so. Should we travel? Wear a mask? What if health care providers make mistakes? It’s hard enough to keep yourself from living in fear, so what will you tell your children? How will you handle their worries, questions, and fears? This is one place where knowledge is power.

Conversations with Kids: Understanding Ebola

In our home, we answer kids’ questions with straight answers and remind them the only dumb question is one that is unasked. As parents, we admit what we don’t know and search together for answers from reliable sources. We try to label emotional headlines. We also keep it age-appropriate.

When it comes to Ebola, your children, and fear, stay abreast of the information coming into the home. News, headlines, video clips—these all clamor for our attention. These are designed to alarm us and elicit an emotional reaction. These avenues of information persuade us to use the channel, website, or newspaper as our news source, increasing numbers and advertising dollars. While media serves to inform, it too needs its “bread and butter.”

We, in Texas, unluckily have the first U.S. case. Double whammy. After initial mistakes, you can bet our state government and health care providers are putting protocols and procedures into place to protect everyone from this devastating virus.

But you should still talk to your kiddos. Better they get information from you than seek it out from unreliable resources. Calmly break it down for them. A few small chats throughout the day or evening keep it from being overwhelming. Watch for signs of fear or the dreaded glazed eyes—which signal the brain is flooded.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

What do they already know about Ebola?

What do they think they know? Find out. Learn what they’ve heard and how it’s been understood. Begin with, “So, tell me what you already know about Ebola.” And listen. Really listen.

Acknowledge their feelings.

Ebola is a scary disease. You are your children’s front-line role models on how to think and feel. They watch you for clues. Center yourself. Be mindful of what you say and how you criticize or complain about things. (For example, the case of the gentleman in Dallas is frustrating and scary on many levels. We can blow off steam—with other adults. A child misinterprets or doesn’t understand adult comments. Panic is more contagious than Ebola.) Remind them they’re safe, that you’ll keep them informed, and that they live in a country with excellent health care resources.

Stick to the facts.

Honesty IS the best policy. Straightforward, easy-peasy, simple facts. Here are some to get you going:

  • Ebola makes people very sick. Some people have died from it. We’ve known about it since the ’70s. Until now, it’s only been in certain parts of Africa. It’s in the news today because it has spread to new places in Africa. We’re concerned because people with the disease came to the U.S. for medical treatment. The patient in Dallas recently passed away. People worry he may have passed it to others in the U.S. Fortunately, we know how you can and can’t get Ebola. Our government and medical workers (in Texas) were great at finding everyone he’d come in contact with and making sure they’re O.K.
  • It’s a rare disease caused by a virus. It’s very hard to get. It’s not like a cold or flu that you can get from the air. You can only get it from contact with a sick person’s body fluids like spit, sweat, vomit, blood, urine, and feces (and sexual contact—for older children). The body fluids also need to have a way to get into your body.
  • Symptoms are: high fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, weakness, stomach pain, and a drop in appetite.
  • Symptoms may appear from 2 to 21 days after infection.
  • You can only get it from someone who is visibly sick. If someone is sick, don’t touch their body fluids. Just a good idea anyway.
  • You can’t get it from water in ponds, oceans, or drinking water. The virus needs to live inside those body fluids.
  • We have one of the best health care systems in the world. That’s why a small number of people with Ebola come to use our hospitals and doctors.
  • In our country, hospitals, nurses, doctors, and paramedics all know how to protect themselves from the virus. That’s why they wear things like gloves, masks, throw-away gowns, etc. They know how to clean up bodily fluids with materials that kill the virus so it can’t infect anyone.

Remembering what we know and all that health care workers and scientists are doing help curb fear and unnecessary panic.

Point out the things they can do to protect themselves and stay healthy.

A sense of control alleviates fear. This is a great chance to reinforce the things they can do to keep themselves healthy as we enter the flu season. The main thing they can do is to WASH THEIR HANDS. Use this as an opportunity to reinforce good hand-washing skills while discussing covering coughs and quickly throwing away tissues. Getting plenty of sleep, eating good foods, drinking lots of water, and being physically active all work to keep bodies healthy. Healthy bodies have healthy immune systems. Healthy immune systems do a better job at fighting off infections.

Talk about everything being done to help fight this disease.

Follow the advice of Mr. Rogers to “find the helpers.” In San Antonio, the hospitals, EMTs, and paramedics are being kept up-to-date on how to protect patients and themselves from Ebola. Scientists and physicians are working very hard to find a cure and prevent the disease from spreading. You, as their parent, will keep them safe.

If they’re old enough, you can talk about the media and how it can present information in an emotionally alarming manner. For younger children, keep watch of media influences to protect them from constant bombardment and over-stimulation. News sources are primarily aimed at adults, anyway, and not always mindful of children. It’s up to you, the parent, to protect them.

On the other hand, if you carefully google, you’ll find some great resources for children. You might print out some facts or maps to look at while you talk. (Sources at the end of this post.)

Talk about the future.

In the upcoming days, Ebola cases may increase, but most experts agree, it won’t be large numbers. As we approach flu season in Texas, people will come to hospitals afraid they have Ebola. Remember, Ebola symptoms and flu symptoms are similar. While it’s always best to be “safe rather than sorry,” the news may talk about these people with Ebola-like symptoms whose test results aren’t yet available. Most (if not all) will not have Ebola. It will be necessary to carefully and accurately understand the news.

There are many jumping off points for conversations. You can discuss the further understanding of how science, biology, and viruses work; how the global economy and travel are affected; and how to choose a reliable source of news and information. As we gain more information on Ebola, you’ll likely revisit the topic. Remember, when children don’t know the facts, they’ll make them up, and what they make up is probably scarier than reality. Proactively having this discussion will put you a step ahead and build a solid foundation for future talks.

New information will show up on your newsfeed daily. Wisely choose your sources. The information presented in this post is the most accurate to date.

World Health Organization


CDC Factsheets

Talking to Children

Curb Your Hysteria

Local Information about Ebola

Having said that, it’s also imperative to recall the early days of HIV and AIDS and the way groups of people were treated, stigmatized, ostracized and even physically hurt. I remind you of the Ray brothers in Florida whose home was burned down.  This is just one of many stories about the damaging effects of  the stigma attached and preyed upon individuals. It is up to us to keep perspective while obtaining the latest information. We are called to protect ourselves without damaging others. Ebola is not an easy human obstacle with neat answers in a row.  It’s likely to be a challenge on physical, emotional, social and economic levels.

Most likely, we will not add updates within this post.   Instead, for the latest information, we direct you to the websites of the CDC, WHO and your local health department.  The intent of this post is to help adults help children.[hr]

Update from the Author

Today, in the car, The Batman and I had a lengthy discussion regarding Ebola. (Seems our best discussions occur in the car or through a bathroom door – go figure.)   He asked questions. My first response was “What do you think?”  Usually, he was on target with his answers. Which told me he’d begun integrating the info we’d discussed over the last several days.

I pointed out it’s easy to see when someone is sick.  For example, at his activity today, if he’d seen someone obviously not feeling well, he could’ve come to me.  I assured him, if he was uncomfortable, I’d create an excuse to leave.  “I’m sorry, I just received a call, and we’ve got to leave so I can take care of some things.” Or, for those old enough to remember, in the words of Greg Brady, “Something suddenly came up.” He breathed a little deeper, relaxed into his seat and accepted I’d listen to him, because, I would. I happen to know him quite well, I don’t expect anxiety to take over and paralyze him. If your child is prone to this, then of course, you’ll need to tailor your talk for your child’s needs.

We discussed in great detail the things we can do to protect ourselves. (It’s good idea to wash your hands when leaving and arriving somewhere – this can help cut down colds and flu, too.) We, again, talked about what others are doing to help with this disease – hardworking doctors, scientists and others.  All of the sudden, like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle, he said, “Oh, I feel a little better about it now. That’s why they quarantined everyone close to the patient in Dallas. I still don’t want it coming to San Antonio.” Neither do I, Batman, neither do I.

I recall this exchange to you because the past several weeks his dad’s job has immersed us in Ebola. (Not literally Ebola, but talk of Ebola, papers about Ebola, and more.) Batman soaked in a lot of information, and asked lots of questions.  Yet, still, it took this most recent car ride for some pieces to fall into place.  I’m sure there’ll be other moments like this. Kids can only absorb and integrate so much at once.  I promised we’d talk about it again, and I’d do my best to keep him safe and informed.

Denise came to SA 21 years ago via Southern Illinois, NYC and Philadelphia. A wife for 25+ years, she’s mom to nursing student, Sis (23); college student, Felicia (20); and 11 yr. old homeschooled Batman. An attachment parenting family, they’ve homeschooled for 13 years. Her MS in education and BS in journalism haven’t really helped with homeschooling. (Except for diagraming sentences. Which is kinda like algebra. Addictive and useless.) A renaissance woman (sounds better than “Jill of all trades mistress* of none,”) she’s been an AIDS/sexuality educator/counselor; doula; lactation consultant; childbirth educator; photographer and writer. She’d like to be more things when she grows up, including children’s author and organized. Living on a work in progress in Helotes, they’re home to horses, rescued/foster dogs, a hedgehog, turtles, bearded dragon, corn snake, and, of course, Red, the neighbor’s longhorn. Life is like a warped Disney movie with a bad episode of tripawd hoarders waiting to happen. The home may be chaotic, funny, and loud -- but, there’s always room for one more. *mistress – 1) as in the feminine form of “master.” 2) not the other one


  1. Well written and very informative. Especially liked your points using the discussion as a “jumping off points for conversations”. I also liked your statement: “If they’re old enough, you can talk about the media and how it can present information in an emotionally alarming manner. For younger children, keep watch of media influences to protect them from constant bombardment and over-stimulation. News sources are primarily aimed at adults, anyway, and not always mindful of children. It’s up to you, the parent, to protect them.”

    • thank you Kate. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. As adults, we have to be conscious of the media – it’s even more important for children. i appreciate your kind words.

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