A Healthy Approach to Teaching Kids About Germs

Staying healthy is a challenge especially as the school year begins. The experts at Henry Ford Health are here to help with tips on teaching kids about germs.

The start of the school year brings many exciting things: new teachers, new classmates and new activities. Unfortunately, it also means that kids are now exposed to the back-to-school illnesses that seem to crop up every year. COVID-19 has increased the overall germ concerns that most parents and children have.

“This is one of the few times in history where our children are aware of the health status of other people,” says pediatrician Nakia Allen, M.D., on the Henry Ford Health blog.

Germs are a fact of life but we can teach kids how to minimize their exposure, even in a busy classroom. What’s more, by sticking to the facts and providing action plans, you can teach kids about germ dangers without causing undue anxiety. Learning how to practice good habits is something that will benefit your child’s health for life.

Teaching kids about germ basics

When teaching kids about the dangers of germs, start with the basics. What are they? Simply put, they are bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. They spread through sneezing or coughing, aka respiratory droplets or through contaminated surfaces. That’s why it’s so important to wipe down high-traffic “touch” areas in your home regularly.

list of 10 household items that harbor germs

And now for the big question: How do you avoid having germs make you sick? There are three main ways: hand washing, staying away from sick people and in some cases, vaccination. 

Of course, how you explain this to your kids depends on their age and level of development.

Explanations by age

For preschoolers, keep it simple: Germs are not good because they make you sick and they can spread easily. Teach little ones to wash their hands regularly and to keep their distance from people who seem to be sneezing, coughing or otherwise sick. 

School-age kids have the awareness to want to help others, so Dr. Allen suggests using this to your advantage. “Paint germs as the bad guys and your kids as superheroes who do the right thing by protecting other people.” For example, staying home when you’re sick and washing your hands often. If superheroes aren’t your child’s thing, you can use the same analogy with one of your child’s favorite characters from TV, games or movies.

Teens are tricky. While they can certainly understand germs and how they work, they also hate to miss time with friends or school events. “That socialization and individuation is really important to teenagers,” Dr. Allen says on the Henry Ford Health blog.

She suggests having your sick teen stay in touch with friends by an actual phone call or through social media channels.

Hand washing with soap and water vs. hand sanitizer

We hear a lot about hand sanitizer these days, but the best way to minimize germs is to wash your hands with soap and water, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

handwashing checklist

What about hand sanitizer? While not as good as soap and water, it can help reduce the spread of germs. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using wipes or sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always supervise young kids when using these products.

Minimize anxiety along with the germs

In the COVID-19 era, we don’t want to scare kids who may have already experienced their fair share of pandemic anxiety, especially if they watched loved ones deal with the disease. 

If your child seems anxious about hearing that someone else is sick, Dr. Allen says to listen to your child’s concerns. While you want to teach them to manage germs, you don’t want them to become unduly anxious about others’ health or their own. “You can say ‘I know you are concerned about your friend’ or ‘I know your teacher’s absence is worrying you.’ Then launch into a plan of action to alleviate the anxiety.”

Some ideas: making handmade cards or leaving a bag of comfort items at someone’s front door. When kids can take action and help someone who is feeling sick, they feel better about the situation.

The bottom line is that with a little extra effort, you can reduce your family’s chances of avoiding germs and getting sick. Make it a family project, suggests Dr. Allen, and encourage everyone to do their part. “Explain to your children that if we don’t do a great job of washing our hands and catching sneezes, someone else can get sick.”

For more information on keeping kids healthy, visit henryford.com 

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.

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