Covid Anxiety in Children
By Emily Hanlon
Anxiety in children is at an all time high at the moment, and that’s quite scary considering that anxiety disorders are already the number one mental health diagnosis in both children and adults.
Our poor kids have been through so much during this pandemic. Their entire worlds have been turned upside down. School routines were cancelled, all extra curricular activities postponed, play dates were happening online…it was a lot. Even now as we return to ‘normal,’ they are always on edge not knowing whether they will be a close contact and have to isolate, whether they will contract COVID themselves, or having to stay away from loved ones in order to keep them ‘safe.’ All of this is not even taking into account those children who have not been able to see family (interstate or over seas) in over two years!
It’s also important to consider that children have seen adults display anxiety about the pandemic and are likely also modelling this also.
The tricky thing with this type of anxiety is, how do you reassure a child when we are totally unsure ourselves? My number one tip here would go back to basics, don’t try and reassure a child, they are not looking for your reassurance, they are looking for your understanding. Empathise with them let, let them know they are not alone, and make them feel safe with their feelings (instead of trying to make those feelings go away). Because at the end of the day, pandemic or no pandemic, the therapeutic treatment for anxiety has never been to make the anxiety go away, it’s about learning to manage the fear and tolerate uncertainty.
Here are 10 general tips for helping children with COVID anxiety:
Try not to have the news on in front of them. The news tends to spit out a lot of negative statistics rather than focusing on any positives and this is can be really harmful for our kids (and us adults too!)
Wherever possible, stick to a routine. Each morning (or the night before) let your child know what is happening that day so that they are able to know what their day will look like. Predictability and routine are key to managing uncertain times.
Many people think that anxiety means quiet worries, but for some children, anxiety is externalised as aggression. Be mindful that your child may be ‘acting out’ as a way to try and tell you how anxious they are. Be sure you are not accidentally ‘punishing’ their anxiety as this will only make them feel more alone with their worries.
Check in with their feelings regularly throughout the day. You can use visuals, or have a quick verbal check in. My emotion dice is perfect for this (linked here: https://www.theplayfulpsychologist.com/product-page/the-emotion-dice-bundle) Checking in regularly with feelings can help you and your child identify when they are starting to feel overwhelmed BEFORE a meltdown/before it is too late to intervene.
Practice some daily affirmations. You can use my affirmation card pack (linked here: https://www.theplayfulpsychologist.com/product-page/the-weekly-self-esteem-card-pack) which come with ideas on how to generalise the affirmation throughout the week. Or you could make it even more fun and quirky by using a whiteboard marker to write the affirmation on a mirror or window each day.
Encourage them to ask questions and try not to shut their questions down. Provide them with age appropriate facts. When we ignore or dismiss questions, kids sense that we are trying to hide something from them, which can in turn make their anxiety worse.
On that note, try to speak to them calmly and openly. Try not to be dismissive of the situation but also be mindful of the words you choose. Saying that it is a ‘the worst pandemic the world has ever seen’ is not helpful.
Model a positive and calm attitude. Easier said than done, I know…but very important! Try not to talk to children about coronavirus when you are feeling particularly stressed or overwhelmed. If you feel heightened and they are asking questions, delay your answer by saying something like ‘that is a really great question, I want to have a think about the answer before I share so I will come back in a few minutes.’ This gives you some time to regulate yourself to ensure you are answering your children calmly and appropriately.
Focus on things you and your children can control. By giving children practical things that they can do will help them to feel empowered rather than helpless. For example, remind children about hygiene – make sure they know how to wash their hands properly and remind them to do this before and after they eat.
Try to do something fun each day. This doesn’t have to be extravagant! It can be something like a movie in a fort, a dinner picnic in the backyard/living room, a special ice cream night where they get to choose their own toppings…just something to lighten their mood and lift their spirits.