Fear, uncertainty, angst and anxiety are certain to escalate with children and teenagers who tend to lean towards anxiety in the first place. The outbreak of the highly contagious coronavirus (COVID-19) and the media coverage regarding this disease affects our children greatly whether they are articulating their feelings or not. We can help our kids with anxiety cope with the outbreak COVID-19.
After the “Yes! We are out of school for another two weeks!” passes, and their lives are suddenly changed from what they know to be true, kids’ anxiety can surface internally. Our kids are witnessing the sheer panic among adults with the lack of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and medical masks. They witness what many kids have said to me, “This might be the end of the earth.”
Children and teens may have a particularly hard time making sense of what’s happening in such a scenario, given their pending brain maturation, their lack of experience, and their inherent suggestibility and vulnerability. Seemingly endless news cycles may feel overwhelming, confusing and scary to a child or teen. Children typically possess lesser abilities to decipher and understand from the news, the extent of risk that a disease outbreak poses to them or to their loved ones and friends. This can create a sense of panic amongst children. This may be more challenging when a child/teen is already suffering from an anxiety disorder or predisposed to feeling more anxious in unusual or new situations.
How a child responds to news of the coronavirus may depend on several factors, such as:
- age of the child,
- language/comprehension abilities and developmental level of the child,
- presence, severity and type of anxiety disorder(s) or other psychiatric conditions,
- prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self,
- occurrence of other recent stressors or major life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, major move, change of school), etc. Therefore, a parent’s response would need to be tailored to the individual situation and context surrounding their child/teen.
Listed below are some tips for communication with a child or teenager who is feeling anxious regarding the coronavirus.
Kids observe our behaviors to determine their own feelings. When we appear to be panicking and freaking out, they quickly determine there is reason to be frightened.
The most important and impactful form of communication to your child/teen is your own behavior. Children typically tend to be perceptive and sensitive to the behavior of others in their surroundings. If you and other adults in the home are acting and behaving calmly, you are sending a clear message to your child/teen that there is no need to panic or worry. If you are acting a fool by constantly watching for updates on television or social media, over discussing the pandemic, or running to the nearest store for toilet paper, just know they are feeding off of your behaviors. Monitor your own feelings and behaviors. Take time to enjoy extra time with your kids by playing a board game, going on a walk, or sitting outside and talking.
Children sense their parents’ anxiety even when parents are not voicing or expressing their anxiety related thoughts or fears. Carving a few minutes for yourself for mindful breathing pauses during the day may help you model calm for your child/teen.
Significant changes to daily routines or schedules are stressful for children and convey to the child that you are very concerned or there is a crisis. As soon as the school districts called a hiatus on school, our kids’ lives changed suddenly and dramatically. Make new schedules and adhere to them as much as possible. Be creative and use the millions of websites where you can gain “homework” or ideas for your kids to continue learning and reading. Consistency is key. With school closed, kids tend to miss the structure and routine and rarely know what to do with their new spare time that proves to be educational or healthy learning. Devices are overly used and serve as babysitters. Kids even get tired of the devices, believe it or not.
Sitting around idle or on a device without a plan for the day is likely to escalate anxiety, especially for teens already suffering from anxiety. On the other hand, if your child/teen happens to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) related to maladaptive perfectionism and has a need for excessive structuring, adding more structure would not apply to your child/teen. In this case, you would need to work with your child’s therapist/psychiatrist to determine the best strategy to navigate this situation, taking into account the unique circumstances of your child.
Listen to your child/teen’s feelings, worries, fears and questions about coronavirus. Children may receive their news about coronavirus from friends, neighbors, parents, internet, TV, home or elsewhere. They may worry that the worst may happen to them and/or their friends and loved ones. Ask questions in a non-judgmental and empathetic manner. Show your child/teen that you are present and interested in hearing their thoughts and feelings. This will make it easier for your child/teen to approach you with their thoughts and feelings in future as well. You can find more information on Active Listening at CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)’s ‘Essentials for Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers’ here: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/overview.html
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Let your child know you hear what they are saying. Discounting their fears only teaches them to stop talking to you. Be careful not to dismiss, invalidate, make fun of or reject their feelings. You may also inform your child that it is common to feel this way; many other people (including children) experience similar feelings. Many people have shared with me that they worry when validating their child’s feelings, it increases the feeling. Validating someone’s feelings does not mean you agree with the beliefs underlying those feelings, but, it means you acknowledge the presence of those feelings and that you understand that such feelings are a part of the human experience. Validating is very powerful as it helps the person feel understood. This is especially important for children as they rely on and check with parents/teachers to make sense of their emotional experiences, particularly experiences or situations that are new or unusual for them. Validation can help the child feel calmer and enhance the child’s ability to process their emotions. Frequent invalidation of a child/teen can lead them to be confused about or doubt their own feelings as they grow up and may contribute to low self-esteem or sense of self, besides potentially affecting or even rupturing your relationship with them in the long-term.
Help Sit with Anxiety:
Encourage your child to practice sitting with and experiencing the anxiety, rather than doing something to relieve it or distract from it. Sitting with the anxiety is challenging at first because we are not taught to do this. Teach your child to sit with the feelings – feel them – and ride the wave of these feelings with breathing techniques, listening to a mindfulness app, and to verbalize their feelings and not avoiding them. This can prove to be challenging and unpleasant until the child learns to feel the feelings, verbalize the feelings, and allow the feelings to pass with the best techniques that work for them. Normalizing the experience of anxiety allows the child/teen to work through it.
Suggestions for Mindfulness/Meditation/Coping Skills
- Small kids/Breathe-think—do-with-sesame: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/breathe-think-do-with-sesame/id721853597?mt=8&at=1l3v7C7
- Tweens and teens/Calm: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/calm-meditation-to-relax-focus-sleep-better/id571800810?mt=8&at=1l3v7C7
- Kids and teens: Dreamy Kids: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dreamykid-meditation-app-just-for-kids/id1161307071?mt=8&at=1l3v7C7
- Kids and Teens: Headspace: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/headspace-guided-meditation-and-mindfulness/id493145008?mt=8&at=1l3v7C
Know the Facts and Direct towards Facts:
Your child/teen is hearing about the novel coronavirus from several sources! Do not shy away from approaching or discussing it. Be proactive in talking to your child/teen about facts regarding the coronavirus. For this, you will need to equip yourself with and read about the facts around coronavirus first. Ensure that you are getting your facts from reliable sources, such as the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html.
For an older child/teen, point them in the direction of scientifically authentic and reliable sources of news information about coronavirus. Inform your older child/teen that every new story may not be complete or show the big picture. This is an excellent way to spend time with your teenager! Educate yourself as well as your older child/teen on distinguishing reliable and scientific sources of information about coronavirus from non-reliable ones. Inform your child/teen about the facts that you know about coronavirus, in a developmentally suitable way (in terms and amounts that they can grasp at their age and comprehension level).
Children may have heard news about deaths from coronavirus. For older children who are more likely to understand the concept of death and its finality, you can educate them that most people do not die from this disease, rather, most get better. Regardless of the age of your child, if your child asks specific questions about deaths from coronavirus, do not avoid those; ask them what they think and know, and explain facts to your child in a simple way that is digestible for their age and developmental level, and is situationally appropriate. Ask them further about their concerns. Let your child/teen know that you are available if they want to talk further or have any questions.
Limit Excessive Reassurance:
Children or teens, who are feeling anxious or suffering from anxiety disorders, may repeatedly ask their parents for words or gestures of reassurance. Excessive reassurance may be in the form of repeated requests for gestures of comfort, repeated questions to verify safety of self and others, repeated requests for checking or repeating or asking you to repeat facts of the situation to reassure self, etcetera. While you may have an urge to provide such reassurance and such reassurance may give you the impression that it is helping at that moment, excessive reassurance actually serves to reinforce and increase anxiety in the long term. Therefore, it is advisable to limit excessive reassurance. Also, aim to provide a high ratio of positive to constructive feedback for your child/teen when they engage in appropriate behavior. Parents who are suffering from anxiety disorders, may find it particularly challenging to limit such reassurance and may benefit from professional help for themselves to address these challenges.
Limit and Monitor News/Media Exposure:
Most children and adolescents in the US (and in large parts of the world) watch hours of TV and other media daily. Limiting and monitoring the exposure of your child/teen to news cycles can be one step towards helping them regulate their anxiety. The younger the child, the greater their need for limiting exposure to news. For older children too, parental monitoring and guidance to help navigate the confusing and often scary news about coronavirus, is needed.
Consult, Collaborate with Healthcare Professionals:
If your child/teen is suffering from an anxiety disorder or other psychiatric condition, talk to your pediatrician and arrange for a consultation with a mental health professional, if you haven’t done so already. Most treatments for anxiety in children and teens should involve psychotherapy. There are various modalities of psychotherapy that can be beneficial for anxiety; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one form of psychotherapy that has substantial evidence of benefit for treatment of anxiety in children and adolescents. If your child/teen already is under the care of a mental health professional, work closely with that professional to help your child navigate this unusual time.
It is important during this time to take care of your own mental health as well. I recently blogged about Overcoming Worry however if you are feeling stuck and need to talk, I would love to meet you! Email or call anytime to schedule an in-person or virtual session. (817) 701-5438 | firstname.lastname@example.org
CRT, CCDC, CACC | Counselor & Life Coach
Empowering individuals, families and communities to grow and heal through advanced approaches in Creative Arts Therapy, setting the standard for treatment, practice and training within the field.