Dr. Greene’s Answer:
What a wonderful question! Many people are unwilling to talk about HIV/AIDS, but open communication is vital. HIV is a tragic illness that profoundly impacts all whom it touches. The one who is sick, loved ones, friends and contacts all deserve understanding and compassion. Unfortunately, misunderstanding abounds and interferes with everyone getting what they need.
Your child needs to have HIV/AIDS clearly explained at her/his own level. At my son’s elementary school, one of the adults developed active AIDS. Understandably, this generated a great deal of concern from parents, and a great many questions from kids.
I was asked to come and speak to the kindergarten class about AIDS. At the time, they were studying ‘the town’, so I decided to compare the human body to a town, with blood vessels as the roads connecting one place to another. I then explained the three main kinds of traffic in the blood – Red Blood Cells (RBC), White Blood Cells (WBC), and platelets. The RBC were the delivery trucks, taking oxygen and nutrients wherever needed. The WBC were the police, protecting the body from infection, and platelets were the repair trucks, fixing the roads (repairing the blood vessels).
Then we played a game. Each child got either a red, white, or brown piece of construction paper to hold as she/he circulated about the room. I announced that there was a cut, and a few of the RBC tumbled off the road as the platelets rushed to stop the flow. Next, cold germs invaded the nose, the police were called, and the WBC came and stopped the infection. Once the children understood this simple model of the body, they were ready to understand AIDS.
HIV is a virus that attacks the WBC. We introduced someone pretending to be HIV into our circulation, and many WBC were incapacitated. Then, when other germs attacked, the body got very sick, and eventually died. The children got the basic idea quite well. I explained that no cure for AIDS has been discovered, but that there are ways to keep people healthier longer. We even talked about what a cure for AIDS might look like, and acted out some possibilities.
We then encouraged the children to ask whatever they were wondering about. When you explain HIV to your child, allow plenty of time for this. Honor questions. We always want our children to feel great about coming to us with their concerns. If a child asks a question, assume he/she is mature enough to hear an honest answer at the appropriate level.
The most urgent question for my son’s class was, “How do you get it?” The virus lives in blood and other body fluids. I explained that it is not easy to catch, but that the virus has to get from an infected person into your blood stream in order for you to get sick. We talked about what it means to be safe and about not touching blood or stool. We did not talk about sex at that time, but I certainly would if they asked, or if it were a slightly older group. I did explain that people with AIDS need hugs.
In the end, these kindergarteners understood the basic facts about HIV/AIDS better than many adults. It was a magical time that forged a new closeness in the group and dispelled many fears. Three years later they still talk about our time together, and continue to dream of ways to develop a cure!
I am very grateful that the school took the initiative to open clear communication between children, parents, teachers, and the person with AIDS. If you are not so fortunate, perhaps you can be the one to get people together to talk. With open, caring communication, everyone will profit.
N.B. – The principles outlined above are the same for adolescents. Frank, sensitive discussion is still key, but the content will need to be appropriate to their developmental level. Of course, sexuality will be a core issue.