How to help your child deal with COVID-19 anxiety
If you’re feeling the ripple effect of Covid-19-related anxiety, you’re not alone. With schools closed, sports cancelled, work routines disrupted, and almost every aspect of our lives derailed, it’s normal to feel stressed or anxious.
This stress does not just affect adults – children and teens are also at risk for anxiety, especially as their daily routines are affected.
In this post, I’ll define the feeling and effects of anxiety, explain more about why Covid-19 triggers anxiety, and then list some helpful tips on how you can help your children navigate some of the complicated emotions they may be facing in light of Covid-19 related anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is often experienced as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. From a psychological point of view, it can be seen as a response to the helplessness experienced during a traumatic event, a result of internal (often unconscious) conflicts, or even a consequence of repressed aggressive or impulsive drives.
Why Covid-19 is associated with anxiety
The Covid-19 pandemic is a traumatic event with a very uncertain outcome. People are uncertain about the health, financial, and social implications of the pandemic and are experiencing a general sense of helplessness and a feeling of being out of control.
Parents might be fighting more than usual, due to struggling with their own uncertainty and as a result of continuously being in each other’s company. This affects children’s general sense of security.
What emotions are children experiencing now?
Overall children’s lives have changed drastically, and many might find it difficult to adjust to the ‘new normal’.
While children are often hailed for their ‘resilience’, they may in fact, just be better at hiding their deep feelings. Like little conduits, they are really good at picking up on the anxiety of their parents, and some may unknowingly absorb their parents’ stress.
Younger children might find it difficult to understand and make sense of the pandemic. They may feel underlying anger about not being able to play with friends, not being allowed to visit extended family members, and about being compelled to wear a mask whenever they go outside.
They might also be feeling lonely as a result of not getting their social needs met, or might feel stuck or under-stimulated in limited environments.
Some children may even be fearful of getting sick or losing someone close to them to the disease.
On top of that, many older children have had to adjust to the demands of online schooling, which again, has placed stress on parents.
Personality traits that make children more vulnerable to anxiety
Children with certain personality traits are more vulnerable to the experience of anxiety. Amongst other traits, these include:
- Difficulty dealing with change
Children who are prone to overthinking might obsess about situations or over-analyse scenarios.
Those who are prone to suffer from perfectionism might find it difficult to deal with the experience of being out of control and might be fearful about making mistakes.
Some children are sensitive to external stimuli and may find it hard to cope with changes in their environment.
Other children are highly empathic and might be more sensitive to the feelings of those around them and absorb their feelings more readily.
Helping your child deal with Covid-19-related anxiety
Help your child feel safe with routine
Anxiety-inducing uncertainty comes with the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, it is important to keep certain parts of your child’s life as predictable as possible. This includes helping your child follow a consistent routine. A consistent routine may help your child feel safe and perhaps more able to tolerate external uncertainties.
As much as it is possible, try not to bring about too many changes in your child’s life, or else, inform them about these changes well in advance.
Encourage your child to express their feelings
It is important to help your child find words to express his/her anxiety. Adults often tell children what they are supposed to feel. However, this might be very different from the child’s actual experience. Children need to voice their feelings in their own words.
It is helpful when parents and caretakers can listen to these feelings empathically and without judgment. It can be very helpful to mirror your child’s feelings and to paraphrase it back to them.
If your child finds it difficult to voice their feelings, invite them to create a picture to express them instead.
If your child isn’t ready to talk, don’t push them too much to talk about their feelings. Instead, allow some space for your child to talk about it when they feel ready to do so.
Help your child to externalise the feeling
Externalising anxiety means that anxiety is seen as an object/symbol outside of the child.
Find a metaphor to associate the anxiety with. Perhaps the anxiety can become the monster, the dragon, or the heavy stone that the child lives with, instead of something which is an integral part of the child.
This technique can help your child feel less ashamed of their anxiety and help them to attach less power to it.
Teach mindfulness techniques to your child
Mindfulness techniques are very helpful in dealing with anxiety and can be easily transferred to children. Help your child to engage in deep breathing exercises where they are invited to focus on the temperature and the length of their breath, without attaching any judgment to it.
Invite them to focus on any bodily sensations they are aware of and you can help them to breathe through parts of their bodies that feel tense or tender.
Basic yoga practices can help children reconnect to their bodies and better tolerate uncertainties in their external environments. It also brings your child’s attention back to the present moment.
Spotting anxiety in children and knowing when to seek help
Even though it is normal and expected for children to experience anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic, many children require further assistance to work through these feelings.
There are certain behaviours parents can look out for in determining whether their children are experiencing high levels of anxiety and require further assistance from a professional.
Amongst other things, these behaviours include:
- A child who becomes quieter and more detached
- Persistent irritability or anger
- Continuous tearfulness and sadness
- Moodiness or feelings that fluctuate more than normal
- A child who complains of headaches or stomach aches, where there is no apparent physical reason for it
- Preoccupation with physical illness
- Persistent worry, anxiety, fearfulness or restlessness
- Regular nightmares
- Difficulties with concentration
- A sudden drop in performance at school
- A loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
It might be difficult to identify these signs during this time but continue to monitor your child and reach out for help from a qualified psychologist if signs of anxiety continue.
Therapy can be incredibly beneficial for children and adolescents. It helps to improve their capacity to deal with uncertainty and helps them to articulate their fears and explore underlying psychological meanings associated with them. It also helps to develop self-regulation and increases the capacity for empathy and deeper connection.
If the anxiety of your child, or even your own anxiety, seems overwhelming right now— seek help. Don’t be afraid to reach out during this stressful time.