We’ll make it through, but COVID-19 is a worry – for all of us, including our kids. Jason Broderick provides some takeaway tips to assist with children’s anxiety
During unsettling times, such as the current COVID-19 outbreak, increased levels of stress and anxiety impact people in different ways. Learning to deal with these challenges over the years has, for many of us, been achieved through trial and error. But when our children are faced with challenges or trauma, we need to recognise that they may not yet have developed the skills to cope. As parents, we need to know the right strategies and approaches that will enable our children to continue to function and thrive.
None of us wants to see a child unhappy, so the way we choose to help our children through these difficult times is important. If this is done well at this stage in their life, we are already laying the foundations for a future in which they are well-equipped to face adversity. But we need to recognise that we don’t always take the best approach; we fail to realise that sometimes our own coping skills could also use some improvement. Too often, we choose to remove the sources of stress that can trigger anxiety. However, the best way for us to start assisting our children is to do like the flight attendants tell us: “Put your oxygen mask on first!”
In short, we must become better attuned to our own behaviours before we can assist others. As adults, we are always role-modelling. Therefore, check-in
with your own emotions and take a mindful moment before trying to assist your child; doing so can break the feedback loop of your child becoming stressed by observing and responding to your own stress. Children feed off your emotional ripple.
Keep it real
Quite often worry is presented in different ways for each child. This could be observed through changes in their sleep patterns, for instance nightmares, trouble settling down to sleep, or expressing fear about sleeping. A distinct change in their mannerisms – displaying irritability or anger, moodiness and/ or changes in appetite – can manifest. It is common to observe a regression of behaviour in young children, such as clinging, bedwetting, thumb sucking, withdrawal from others, or crying and tearfulness. You could witness increased fearfulness, for instance about monsters, the dark or being alone. When such behaviours are presented at home even the most well-meaning parents can fall into a negative spiral and be left wondering what they can possibly do to help.
Model managing your own emotions in an age-appropriate manner. It may be helpful to acknowledge your stress, and explain how you are struggling to manage it in a healthy way. Children pick up on feelings and nonverbal cues in the adults they spend time with so, if we try to hide our emotions, it can make the situation worse because our children won’t understand what is happening and why. It is important to give children some information to help them obtain some sense of what is happening. For instance, inform them about COVID-19 – if you equip them with age-appropriate facts they will be in a better position to deal with their fears.
Your goal is to normalise your children’s stress levels in order to help them observe and manage a traumatic situation in a more positive way. Talking openly about COVID-19 will help, as will going out of your way to make life seem as ‘normal’ as possible. When their routine is predictable, children feel safe because they know what to expect from their day. It’s essential to create structure: Identify key times of the day when important activities, like home learning, should occur and make it a routine. Be sure the routine works for the whole family.
Communicate your expectations clearly and make sure your children know what you want them to do and when you want them to do it. Depending on your child’s age, use simple charts with pictures to visually display daily routines. Your children may not always want to follow the routine/ rules, so provide reminders and support, when needed, to help them succeed. Even when you’re tired or stressed, do try to stick to the routine as much as possible.
Validate their feelings
Try to be understanding and take the time to listen to what is confusing or troubling your children. Let them know that they can share with you how they are feeling at any time. Realise they may have a hundred questions – this is quite common for children when they are processing events.
Listen and be empathetic: Help your children understand what they are anxious about and encourage them to feel that they can face their fears. Right now, your children need to feel empowered – explain that we can protect ourselves and our friends by wearing our masks whenever we go outdoors and by washing our hands more often than we normally do.
In your own way validate what your children are feeling. By reflecting and acknowledging their thoughts and emotions, you can help them understand that it is ok not to feel ok. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s fine. I’m here and I’m going to help you get through this.” Avoid negating children’s feelings with responses like, “Oh, don’t be worried.” This may cause them to feel embarrassed or criticised. It is better to confirm and reflect what you are hearing: “Yes, I can see that you are worried.” However, understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement, and if your child is trying to use the trauma as an excuse to avoid commitments then you need to set expectations and consequences, more clearly.
Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if your child’s fear came true – how would they handle it? A child who is anxious about COVID-19 might be fearful about someone they know getting sick. I suggest you talk about that. “If someone we know caught COVID-19 what would happen to them? What would we do?” And so on… Quite often the trauma being faced is escalated primarily because the child hasn’t experienced the problematic situation before and so for some, having a plan can reduce the uncertainty in a healthy, effective way.
Importantly, know when to seek help for yourself and/ or your child. Distress and worry, in addition to other issues, may last for a reasonably long duration of time and this can be entirely appropriate both during and after a traumatic event. But seek immediate help from your family doctor or from a mental health professional if issues are interfering with your child’s ability to function or succeed.