LOS ANGELES -- While the news of Magic Johnson's retirement after testing HIV-positive figures to be devastating news to all of his fans, it could be especially disturbing to some of his youngest admirers.
While they advise sensitivity, child psychologists say parents should be honest in discussing Johnson's situation with their children.
"You have to be very straight forward," said Jeffrey Derevensky, a professor of educational psychology and counseling at Montreal's McGill University. "Kids who are 10 or 12 are certainly familiar with the concept of the disease. You tell them he has contracted a disease that will weaken him so that he won't be able to continue."
If the child is younger, say 6 or 7, Ann Bernstein, a child psychologist practicing in Berkeley, Calif. says "you use simpler language but you don't change the basic information you give.
"You say he has a serious disease. It doesn't mean you can't be optimistic about his chances," she said.
In fact, just as Johnson noted the importance of informing children about the HIV disease, Dennis Anderson, a child psychiatrist practicing in New York, says Johnson's retirement may present an opportunity for parents to talk about an issue they may have been reluctant to breach.
"Most kids have probably heard about the disease, but this will make it meaningful to them," Anderson said. "It's important for parents to tell their children what this disease is not. Kids see XTC heroes many times the same way they see their parents, as invulnerable. It's important they know that this just doesn't happen by chance. That if they practice safety, they will be safe."
Derevensky emphasized that one talk will probably not answer all a child's questions. Parents should be prepared and patient to answer a multitude over the next weeks and months.