We are living in an unprecedented time. The Coronavirus – COVID-19 – has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation and the number of people symptomatic of the virus continues to grow, while health agencies and governments work around the clock to contain the spread of the disease.
As the global impacts of COVID-19 become more widespread, the level of generalised anxiety and uncertainty within the community rises. As much as this global pandemic affects parents and caregivers, children and students may also experience increasing levels of anxiety, given that everyday life as they know it is impacted by the increasing public health measures being implemented to halt the spread of the virus.
If you’re unsure of how to support a child or student experiencing heightened anxiety, the following tips may be of use to you.
1. Identify the signs
The Center for Disease Control in the USA advises, “Parents can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children, if they are better prepared.” While every child is different, parents and caregivers may want to keep an eye out for the following signs of rising anxiety levels in their children:
- Excessive crying or irritation in younger children;
- Returning to behaviours they’ve outgrown (e.g. toileting accidents or bedwetting);
- Excessive worry or sadness;
- Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits;
- Irritability and ‘acting out’ behaviours in teens;
- Poor school performance or avoiding school (in the case of schools still being open);
- Difficulty with attention and concentration;
- Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past.
2. Speak openly, honestly and directly
When it comes to anxious children and COVID-19, being direct, open and honest is essential. Of the strategies that you can use to reduce anxiety in children, this is probably one of the more challenging ones.
Dr Peta Stapleton, Associate Professor of Psychology at Bond University, says it is important to balance this honesty with exacerbating any existing anxieties.
“We need to be realistic in what we say. We don’t want to scare our children,” she says. “Perhaps say, ‘Yes, there is a virus that affects some people, and the health authorities are doing the best possible job they can to keep everyone safe’.”
Jacqueline Sperling of Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing adds, “Try to strike a balance between answering questions well enough without fuelling the flame of anxiety. Children have elaborate imaginations that may lead them to create unnecessarily catastrophic stories in their minds if parents do not talk at all, or enough, about a topic like this. At the other end of the spectrum, providing too much information may create extra alarm.”
If you don’t have answers to some of your children’s questions, UNICEF warns against making things up. “If you can’t answer their questions, don’t guess,” they advise. “Use it as an opportunity to explore the answers together. Websites of international organisations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization are great sources of information. Explain that some information online isn’t accurate, and that it’s best to trust the experts.”
3. Limit media exposure
For better or worse, one of the features of modern life is the 24-hour news cycle. In emergencies such as we’re experiencing now, a number of news services are dedicating exclusive, if not blanket, coverage to everything COVID-19-related. While helpful for many adults, this glut of information can have a negative effect on children. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can become very upsetting.
Dr Peta Stapleton suggests limiting kids’ exposure to rolling media coverage of the virus may be helpful: “My advice really is to turn [the TV off] when kids are in earshot – not just the TV but the news in the car and on the kitchen radio.”
“Children’s brainwaves are in a hypnotic state until they are about 10 years [of age], which is really important because if they constantly have negative news playing, it goes into their subconscious,” she says. “Once they’ve got something in their head, they become attached to it. I’m not saying to parents, don’t check in and see what’s happening, but do it out of a child’s presence, particularly those kids who are sensitive.”
4. Set the example: remain calm yourself
Also described as ‘model calmness’, it’s important that parents and caregivers demonstrate control and calm when they’re around children.
“Children and teens react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them,” says the Center for Disease Control in the USA. “[So] when parents and caregivers deal with the COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children.”
If you and other adults in the household are acting and behaving in a measured manner, you are sending a clear message to your child that there is no need to panic or worry,” adds Dr Richa Bhatia writing for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). “For this, you would need to watch and monitor your own feelings and reactions. Children can 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.”
5. Continue with your daily routine – as much as possible
As difficult as it may be with schools and cinemas being closed and sporting events being cancelled, it is important to keep things as normal as you can for kids who are displaying a heightened sense of anxiety.
“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,” suggests Dr Richa Bhatia. “Try adhering to usual routines and schedules in the household as much as possible. Consistency is key.”
“If your child’s school is closed, helping your child have structure during the day may help anxiety. Sitting around idle without a plan for the day is likely to escalate anxiety.”
It’s important that parents and caregivers recognise that children may be dealing with heightened feelings of anxiety as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. As well as monitoring our own anxiety levels, we need to take the time to look for signs in our children that they’re more anxious than usual.
We need to speak openly, honestly and directly with kids, and limit their exposure to constant news and information updates about the spread of the disease. As much as we might find it challenging, it’s important to model calmness when we’re around our kids, and it’s also important that we stick to their daily routines as much as we can.
We might not be able to fully calm our kids’ fears the way we’d like and, if we find that to be the case, it’s important to seek the advice of a professional sooner rather than later.
Want to use the COVID-19 downtime positively to strengthen your children or students’ attention skills? Speak to the team at TALi.