Kids are Anxious too: 5 Tips to Help Them Cope
The COVID-19 pandemic marched on through spring and now halfway through summer. Most of us are getting used to wearing masks when we go out, summer activities have mostly been cancelled or postponed, and our normal routines have disappeared. We all miss family and friends, going to the movies or out to dinner. The virus dominates the news and has changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of. Even worse, it shows no signs of going away. Most children, even those who didn’t always want to go to school, miss their friends and crave a normal routine. As do their parents…
As stay-at-home orders are being implemented again, children are still mostly at home. Adults are more aware of events occurring in their community, state, and across the globe. We are flooded with hourly details about the pandemic and none of it is good. We get mixed messages from the White House and the CDC, so many people don’t know what to think. These are chaotic and challenging times. We wonder when, or even if, life will return to normal. Uncertainty is hard to bear and tension is building in adults across the nation. People are sometimes behaving in angry and volatile ways as underlying anxiety builds.
Children as young as 3 or 4 years old recognize the difference in their lives and remember how it was last summer. But, they are also extremely tuned into their parents and, whether we realize it or not, are affected by our growing anxiety and frustration. In fact, parents may not be as available to our children because we are struggling with our own fears about the future. Many of us comfort ourselves thinking that children are immune from the country’s COVID crisis, but it’s just not true.
Anxiety looks different in children than it does in adults. They may test the limits more often as they know life is different and that you are vulnerable so they may be more likely to succeed. During these stressful times, children may be more moody, temper-prone or even tearful. They may revert back to behaviors from an earlier age like needing more attention from parents, not being able to go to sleep by themselves, or even having more “accidents” or bed-wetting incidents long after it ceased to be a problem. Older children may be more clingy and reluctant to do things independently. They may develop headaches or stomach aches. These noticeable changes are clues to parents that children are struggling with the uncertainty and disruption of these difficult times.
What can parents do to help?
Open and honest conversations
Take notice when children are upset. Spend time with them in order to have an open and honest conversation about what’s on their mind. Time is one of the greatest gifts in relationships and it is often neglected when we are busy. If they are concerned about the pandemic, give them factual information from trusted sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Remind children that the reason people are staying home is to keep from getting sick, and that researchers and doctors all over the world are working to solve this problem. Try to emphasize hope for the future.
Encourage children to talk about their feelings
During difficult times, children need their parents to put everything aside and be there for them. Feeling supported by those you love is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. Let your children know you are willing to listen uncritically and that you love them no matter what. Taking the time to talk, as well as showing love and affection are some of the best ways to support your child.
Listen closely to your children as they tell you about their fears or concerns. Help them find the words to describe their feelings though never force their acceptance. You provide a sounding board as they describe their feelings, but they must lead the way. The ability to distinguish among various emotions is a skill that children typically learn as they grow, but one that all of us struggle with at times. Learning new words to describe different emotions helps nurture this developing skill.
Keep a regular routine, when possible
Children thrive with a regular routine; perhaps adults do too. Although we sometimes want to bust out of our routine, it’s comforting to know what to expect throughout the days and weeks. Children are developing the ability to self-regulate, but most of us don’t get good at this until we are in our twenties or later. Having a routine helps them manage their time and expectations, as well as adjust their energy and even develop self-control and emotional stability. Routines give all of us, particularly children, a sense of security. Many children rely on the presence of a routine to help them manage their feelings and may become distraught if the routine is changed.
COVID-19 has destroyed our routine and the benefits associated with it. We need to develop a new one. Having a regular time to go to bed and to wake up helps us maintain our circadian rhythms, as well as our emotional life. Have you ever noticed how children are much more emotional during vacations? It’s because they don’t have the usual routine and it throws them off balance. Parents can create a new routine based on the usual week-day routine of school and work or they can develop a new one based on a summer schedule. However you do it, establishing routines are helpful to children and may benefit us as well.
Help children stay connected
Support kids’ friendships and relationships with family by encouraging socially distanced activities. The form this takes is not as important as that it occurs. Relationships with other children and adults are part of a child’s psychological development. Children need other people to help learn about diversity and how to adapt our behavior to different situations. We don’t act the same way with our young friends as we do with our grandparents, for example.
Children may be mad or sad about the need to socially distance from friends. But, there are many new ways for children to stay connected with their friends and loved ones. Technology or new socially distanced arrangements requires parental involvement, especially with younger children. Technology such as Zoom, Facetime, Skype or other apps can be used to have a “virtual playdate.” With a little creativity, friends can play games, watch movies, and even eat “together.” The old standby simply talking on the phone can help us feel closer to those we love. For older kids and adults, physical distancing walks or bike rides provide both exercise and connection. Researchers believe many people are doing these activities because despite a flood of other emotions, most people are not reporting being lonely.
Model calm/Create soothing spaces
Parents who are able to demonstrate a calm demeanor in the face of current chaos are giving their children a huge gift. Not that you should fake it. Children have an uncanny ability to recognize tension in their parents. Staying calm isn’t easy and what this means is that parents must take steps to manage their own stress levels during this difficult time. This may mean taking a “Mommy Time-Out,” or getting some exercise, listening to music, or journaling, whatever you do to take care of yourself. Honest recognition of your own stress levels and taking steps to soothe yourself are both part of modeling healthy adjustment for your children.
Both in good times and in bad, children love to have a private space they can go to be alone. Building forts out of blankets or having a special place in the backyard are favorite childhood activities. Living through this unprecedented pandemic and the challenges that go with it make it more important than ever for children to have a quiet place to go when they are feeling bad. Some parents find it helpful to encourage their children to create the private place of their dreams. Parental support can aid a sad kid in gathering his or her resources to make just such a place. Once created, this soothing space can be returned to again and again, whenever comfort is needed.
Mental Health: A new Understanding
The Right Words p. 14