Helping your child overcome pandemic anxiety

Young children growing up during the pandemic have faced confusion and fear surrounding coronavirus and their safety. As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, parents are navigating how to keep their children safe. They should provide relief and balance to not further confuse their children.

A young person wearing a face mask standing among graphic representations of the coronavirus.For some children, the pandemic has instilled fear. Many young people have lost family members or know people in their community who are gone. Others have family situations where keeping one or more people with chronic condition safe is a never-ending struggle. Some youth have none of these issues but still are scared that they or someone they love may die.

“For parents, have a clear idea of what your thoughts are about the virus and get on the same page as your partner. Check your own emotions around the virus, because a lot of people have different feelings,” said Dr. Laurel Williams, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. “When parents are not sure what they think and feel it can cause anxiety and confusion for the child. That goes for double if partners don’t agree.”

Williams suggests asking your child how they feel and what they think of the pandemic. She recommends avoiding questions such as, “Are you worried you’re going to get sick?” Instead ask, “What do you think of masks or hand washing? What comes to mind when you put your mask on or don’t put your mask on, or when you wash your hands or don’t wash your hands?” Parents will often be surprised about their child’s worry or concern about the virus.

Anxiety is a normal feeling everyone experiences, but there is a line where normal anxiety starts becoming pathological anxiety. A young person who needs constant reassurance might be stuck in an anxiety trap.

“When you constantly have to reassure your child that they are going to be fine, you’re no longer talking to your kid – you’re talking to their anxiety,” Williams said. “What happens initially is the anxiety hears it and thinks ‘I feel better’ but then they need to hear it again, usually in shorter and shorter time intervals.”

If children are demonstrating fearful behavior toward the virus, such as repetitive handwashing, first parents should have an age-appropriate conversation about the family’s new pandemic safety strategies. Make this a team effort and be concrete about the new plan.

“Many anxiety treatments involve a very specific technique of actively avoiding what your brain is telling you to do. This can be hard and initially lead to a bigger display of anxiety, and that is the reason for discussing in advance. Doing this with children can help distract them by having them do other things rather than continuing to wash their hands, for example” Williams said.

If you tell your child, “We will wash our hands one time before we eat our food, but that’s the only time,” they may initially react negatively, but should move on just a few minutes later with the new family plan. Each time after this, parents should see less of a meltdown, and the issue will eventually extinguish. The goal is to help your child gradually so they stop feeling the need to do these things excessively. If your child gets distressed trying to follow the new family plan, they might be experiencing a level of anxiety where parents might consider seeking professional help.

Although there are many aspects of the pandemic that parents cannot control, they can control the messages they consume. Instead of spending hours on social media or watching news that instills fear, consume information that you can moderate or engage the child in to have conversations about the virus. While parents cannot control what children hear outside of the home, keeping open lines of communication will allow parents to help kids navigate this ever-evolving pandemic landscape.

Families should have conversations with their children to get a good sense of how they feel and what they are thinking. Parents need to be clear about what their safety plans are and communicate that in an age-appropriate manner. When your attempts to reframe reassurance don’t make progress, consider seeking professional help from a mental health specialist.

As large events and extracurriculars are returning, families planning on attending or enrolling their children in activities should assess their own family risk. Parents should talk with their children in advance about the rules and how the family will approach the event. Williams suggests allowing the child to voice their choice, as long as their choice does not run counter to the family or venue requirements.

-By Homa Shalchi

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