Helping Children Manage Anxiety About COVID-19
Around the world, life looks a lot different right now. With schools and businesses closed, families staying home, and children separated from their friends and favorite activities, we’re all navigating challenging and unprecedented situations. Coronavirus anxiety is a new reality around the globe.
Fears about a new virus, disruption to routine, and social isolation are confusing and scary for children. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to ease their anxiety (and our own).
Check in With Yourself
This time of uncertainty isn’t just scary for children—it’s worrying for adults too. Before you can address the anxiety of your children, it’s vital to take care of yourself.
- How are you feeling?
- What do you need?
- Who is your support system, and are you using technology to stay in touch?
- Are you making time to eat nutritious meals, move your body, and rest?
- How about time for relaxing activities? Are you reading, journaling, taking a hot bath, meditating, or anything else that helps you feel calm?
- Are you limiting your exposure to news and social media?
In addition to these practices, remember to be patient with yourself. We’re all doing the best we can right now, and some days will be better than others. Sometimes you might snap at your children in frustration. Other times, you might feel like you’ve dropped the ball on schooling, or you’ve given your children too much screen time. Acknowledge what you’re feeling, let it go, and try again tomorrow.
When you feel fear, anxiety, or anger building, walk away and take a few deep breaths. Give yourself a few minutes to call a trusted friend, listen to calming music, or write out your feelings. Remember: If you don’t take care of your emotional health right now, you can’t take care of the emotional health of your children.
As we navigate this new normal, it’s natural for your children to feel big emotions, which often come with big behaviors. If your children are acting out, keep in mind that fear, frustration, and anxiety are likely at the root of these behaviors.
Acknowledge and name your children’s emotions. Use phrases like, “It makes sense to feel worried right now; I understand.” Then, offer reassurance: “You’re safe. We’re going to get through this together.”
Practice deep breathing and other active calming strategies as a family. And just as you should be patient with yourself, try to be patient with one another, too.
Provide Age-Appropriate Information
If your kids are like mine, they have a lot of questions. And right now, none of us have all the answers. You also might worry that answering your child’s questions will only frighten them more.
Anxiety is about a lack of control, and it can be soothed with information. Ignoring questions or refusing to answer them will make matters worse as children attempt to puzzle out the situation on their own.
So, provide your children with age-appropriate information. Use simple, reassuring language, and be sure to correct all rumors and misinformation. The CDC has some great information about how to talk to children about the coronavirus, plus some simple facts to share.
To avoid overload, you may choose to designate a certain time of day for questions about COVID-19. For instance, you might answer questions after lunch or while you and your kids walk the dog.
In all conversations about COVID-19, remind your children that parents, health officials, and schools are working hard to keep everyone safe and healthy. Focus on the steps you can take to avoid getting COVID-19 or spreading it to others (staying home, washing hands, not touching your face, etc.).
Human connection is a biological need. It helps us regulate our emotions, improves our immune systems, and increases empathy and self-esteem while decreasing anxiety and depression. Now, more than ever, connection is essential.
Make time to play, laugh, cook, watch favorite movies, sing, dance, make art, or do other enjoyable activities with your children. Give extra hugs and cuddles. Put all devices away during family mealtimes and talk. Despite the many distractions and worries on your mind, try to be fully present.
Create a Routine
Routine and predictability feel safe for children. It’s impossible to keep your routine exactly the same right now, but try to create some sense of normalcy.
Consider creating a daily schedule that you and your family will follow. If this feels too stringent, avoid listing times and use a simple order of events instead. Aim for consistency with waking up, mealtimes, and bed. Include physical activity and time outdoors in your routine. The goal is to create a familiar and comforting rhythm, not to dictate every minute of your day.
At the same time, remember that it’s OK to relax some of your usual rules and boundaries. In these unusual circumstances, the key is to do what works for your family, even if it differs from the norm.
Highlight the Positive
Changing your perspective changes your entire attitude, your actions toward those around you, and your overall situation.
It’s easier said than done, but practice noticing your negative thoughts and putting a positive spin on them. For instance, enjoy the opportunity to slow down and connect with family, rather than feeling “stuck at home.”
Apply the same process to your opinions of other people. You may feel upset that people are hoarding food items and toilet paper, for example. But it’s also true that these people are probably frightened and trying to protect their families.
Or, you might find it frustrating that so many people are not social distancing, which puts others at risk. However, there are millions of people around the world who are united in safe separation too.
With your children, play the game Fortunately/Unfortunately. After acknowledging that the current situation isn’t ideal, shift your focus to a positive aspect. “Unfortunately, we can’t go to school right now. Fortunately, we get to spend more time at home with our families. And we can wear slippers!”
Look for the Helpers
Similarly, heed Mr. Rogers’ famous advice to “Look for the helpers.” For every negative story, there’s a positive story of loved ones, neighbors, and communities coming together to support one another.
People are drawing encouraging artwork on sidewalks. They’re applauding hospital workers at every shift change. They’re grocery shopping for the elderly and vulnerable, then dropping packages off on doorsteps. Teachers are driving through their students’ neighborhoods to connect from a safe distance. Similar parades of family members and friends are being organized to celebrate birthdays.
Then, take it a step further. Be the helpers. Ideas include creating cards or videos for people in nursing homes, video chatting with relatives to brighten their day, donating to a food pantry, saying “thank you” to essential workers, dropping food off for a neighbor, etc.
Finding ways to contribute gives children some sense of control. It’s also a helpful self-esteem and morale booster, something we could all use right now.
If you’d like more information on managing feelings about COVID-19, these websites can help:
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Guide to Helping Families Cope with the Coronavirus 2019
- Child Mind Institute’s Supporting Families During COVID-19 page
- Conscious Discipline’s library of COVID-19 webinars, articles, and digital resources for families and educators
- The American Academy of Pediatrics’ helpful COVID-19 articles
- The International OCD Foundation’s COVID-19 resources for the OCD and related disorders community