How to help your kids get through a COVID-19 test

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Getting a COVID-19 test is uncomfortable for anyone but for children, the nasal or throat swab could potentially be a painful and scary experience.

More and more students are taking the test now that public health policies across Canada require children to get tested for the novel coronavirus and be symptom-free before returning to school.

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Dr. Meghan McMurtry, a professor in psychology at the University of Guelph, says that similar to vaccinations or blood draws, parents or guardians need to make an effort to manage their children’s pain and manage their fear.

“Otherwise, we’re making a situation worse, where we’re creating children who become more fearful of these procedures, then they experience more pain during these procedures because of that fear,” she said.

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Preparing for the test

One of the worst things a parent can do before the test is to not talk about it with their child or not give the full story. Children have an imagination and will fill in details that could sometimes be much worse or scarier than in real life.

McMurtry said ignoring it could be due to children or even parents sometimes being nervous about the test and parents thinking that the less information they share with their child, the better.

“We want to make sure that children know what will happen,” she said. “We need to think about telling the full story about what’s going to happen as much as we know.”

Stick to the facts and answer questions like where the clinic is, who is going to be there, what will be seen and most importantly — how it is going to feel.

Again, it’s important to be honest and McMurtry said she herself has been describing it as like a fizzy drink up your nose.

“That connects well with me and I think that gives us a sense of like it is a bit painful, it doesn’t last forever, that it’s uncomfortable and we need to be honest that that might happen to them,” she said.

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McMurtry added that parents can come up with their own descriptions or even mention that other kids who have received the test are not bothered by it.

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Ultimately, being clear and honest is the best strategy ahead of the test, but children also need coping strategies and a plan to make everyone feel comfortable during the swab.

This could include things like distractions such as music, movies or games on a tablet, a book or an activity as you wait in line for the test or during the test itself if the health-care worker allows it.

McMurtry said coping statements are also a huge help such as “I am brave,” “I am Superman,” “I am Wonder Woman,” or any statements to make a child feel comfortable.

During the test

McMurtry recommends coaching your child to take some deep belly-breaths from their mouth during the swab and counting to 20.

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“That’s important because then the child knows that it’s not going to last forever,” she said. “They sort of have an accurate sense of how much time is actually passing.”

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If multiple family members are going for a test, have the child who is most comfortable or relaxed go first. Or go first as a parent to model the coping strategies and show how quick and easy the test is.

McMurtry recommends comfort positions to help children feel safe and calm during the swab.

“We do not want children restrained or held down because obviously, that’s fear-inducing,” she said. “Nobody likes to be held down and we also need children to sit still for the test.”

In a testing centre, a smaller child can sit on a parent’s lap, either sideways or their back to the parent’s chest. Parents can then hold their child close, like a hug.

In a drive-thru clinic, parents could sit side-by-side in the car next to their child with their arms wrapped around them.

For some children, it may be helpful for parents to gently hold their child’s forehead to keep their head still during the swab.

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For teenagers, parents can be seated next to them with a hand on their shoulder or leg.

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Parents should also avoid repetitive reassurance, such as “everything is going to OK.” McMurtry says that it is typically not helpful beyond saying it once. Instead rely on the previously-mentioned coping strategies such as counting, deep breaths or some sort of distraction.

“When parents kind of engage in this overly reassuring behaviour, children think that they’re worried, that their parents are worried, and so that’s alarming,” she said.

After the test

McMurtry says parents should talk to their child about what happened during the test, but it’s important to be specific about certain aspects of the procedure.

“We want to make sure that we focus on either a neutral or a positive aspect because what we don’t want is sort of negative very catastrophizing kind of memories of the procedure that actually aren’t accurate,” she said. “We want accurate and possibly positive memories because this is important for the next test they have to get.”

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It’s almost important to remind your child that getting tested for the virus, doesn’t mean that they have COVID-19.

McMurtry said some children may feel like they are in trouble and the parent needs to assure them that is not the case.

“I think when parents open up the space to talk about this test and the procedure with their children, they’re also opening up a space to correct any misperceptions the child may have,” she said.

Need more help

One more thing parents can do before the test is have their children watch videos of it being performed.

The B.C. Children’s Hospital has released an educational video aimed at kids, with the goal of taking the anxiety out of the experience, should they need a test.

B.C. Children’s Dr. David Goldfarb got the idea to produce the video after his daughter Ella saw footage of a test.

“She saw it, and was asking if she could get that test done, so I thought if her response was that way it was a reassuring response,” he told Global News.

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“It made me think that this is maybe a good thing for kids to see.”

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