Helping Children Manage Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Anxiety thrives on uncertainty – and these are uncertain times. We can expect our children to feel more than the usual amount of anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. For kids with anxiety disorders, fears and unknowns may become overwhelming. Parents, educators, and other caring adults can help guide children through successful anxiety-management strategies.
Anxiety likes to box us into all or nothing thinking, overgeneralizing and jumping to conclusions. Anxiety can make kids sound argumentative, illogical and angry. Anxiety can try to convince us of many things that are untrue or only partly true.
But sometimes another person’s outlook can help us tell the difference between what is possible and what is probable.
To help counteract common anxious thought patterns:
- Name the anxiety and identify anxious thoughts as just that, anxious thoughts, rather than facts or truths. For example, one child I know calls his anxiety “Zeus the Dodo Bird.” Then his parents can say, “What is Zeus the Dodo Bird telling you about the coronavirus today?” or “Sounds like Zeus the Dodo Bird is flying around free in your head right now.”
- State the facts as you know them. Don’t worry about trying to name what is unknown. If you are able to name what you know and don’t know, your anxious child can develop some comfort in your comfort with not knowing. Additionally, modeling a calm attitude while discussing these things will encourage kids to mirror the same attitude.
- Update your child with pertinent information. If new information comes out from trusted sources, you can share that in the most minimal way that is still accurate and helpful. For example, if you learn that schools will stay closed for three weeks, you can share that with your child. You might also need to say that we don’t know what will happen after that, but you will update him/her when we know more.
- Cite trusted sources so your child learns to identify sources of factual information, too. For example, you could say that the school, health and local authorities are communicating together to keep everyone as safe as possible.
- Help your child limit the amount of news taken in – once or twice a day, with your guidance, will be much better than unfiltered, conflicting messages. It’s also a good idea to limit your own intake of news coverage; setting boundaries on how many times you check the news can minimize unhelpful ruminations about the present situation.
Stay in touch
Your anxious child probably uses his/her friends to reality check things during school. Kids who don’t struggle with anxiety will respond honestly to their anxious friends to help them keep perspective. For example, an anxious child might use friends as a sounding board to gauge whether or not their fear is valid. A fourth-grader may say to his friend, “I heard that everybody’s grandparents are going to get really sick.” And his friend may reply, “No, my mom told me that they might get sick, but it’s not for sure.”
Without regular peer interactions, however, your anxious child may convince herself of some of the anxious thoughts. So, it’s important to keep kids in touch with their friends, even remotely. Kids should also keep in touch to maintain their sense of social connection and belonging, preventing feelings of loneliness and sadness.
Set up FaceTime schoolwork sessions. If your child has been given assignments to complete online, try to set up at least a few homework activities that can be done with a classmate via a video chat.
Set up playbreaks that loop in friends near or far. Getting oxygen into our system by moving, laughing or playing can unwind kids’ anxiety spirals.
Maintain structure to limit time for anxiety
Uncertainty is uncomfortable. We are designed to try our best to avoid discomfort. For anxiety, that can mean avoiding things that produce feelings of discomfort or uncertainty. Avoidance can look like shutting down, checking out, distracting ourselves, or even tantruming.
Avoidance thrives on unstructured time. In other words, unstructured time is anxious time. When our minds are free to roam wherever they want, anxiety is happy to steer the ship.
Here are some tips to help your child through this:
- Look out for signs of avoidance. Kids may look like they’re procrastinating or being “lazy,” but if they are tense and not enjoying themselves it could be avoidance rather than procrastination.
- Keep to a schedule, a flexible one. Ideally, your child and you can create a daily schedule together that has age-appropriate time chunks for necessary and fun activities. Try mixing business with pleasure: one section of math problems followed by 10 minutes of jumping jacks to music, for example.
- Build in choices. Anxiety can overwhelm our brains and make it hard to come up with a plan for ourselves. Offering choices to children with anxiety can help them make better decisions.
- Help kids identify what they can and can’t control. Even naming something as out of our control can help quell our efforts to bring it under our control. Additionally, giving them something that they cando can help them feel empowered with things that they can control (e.g., allowing them to choose an activity to add to the schedule).
Our bodies respond to stress and anxiety with a survival fight/flight/freeze response. When we go into “fight or flight,” kids may feel more active or fidgety than usual. Moving our bodies can help us clear our mind and dispel frenetic energy or tension.
When we go into a “freeze”response, we shut down. We get sleepy, or we want to hibernate under the blankets in front of Netflix all day. Alternating active moments with some downtime can help regulate our bodies and keep our anxiety in check.
Some ideas to keep active while stuck at home:
Crank up a playlist have a dance party. Take turns choosing the music. Or dance together while each wearing your own earbuds with your favorite tunes.
Chores around the house don’t have to be, well, a chore. Racing to get them done in a certain amount of time or cleaning the floor by “skating” with rags under your feet are ways to make chores a little more like play.
Play with pets to make sure they stay active, too. There are lots of videos online of ways to teach your pets new tricks. Use short breaks from other scheduled events to connect with your animals, and maybe teach them something, too.
If you have a trampoline, do some jumps, or just roll around and let it massage your muscles. Rolling like a ball on a soft surface, such as a carpet or on the bed, can also help massage our spine and ease some tension.
You can even exercise while watching TV. Try bouts of stretches, crunches, hops, and other mixes of aerobic activity with stretching.
If you find that your child is prone to getting into worry spirals, staying grounded can be helpful for refocusing to the present moment.
Help your child tap into the grounding power of their senses:
- Try Soothing with Your Senses or the 5-4-3-2-1 activity: Name 5 things you can see around you right now; Name 4 things you can touch around you right now; Name 3 things you can hear around you right now; Name 2 things you can taste around you right now; Name 1 thing you can smell around you right now.
- Gift yourself some self-compassion. It’s hard for all of us, and you need to keep yourself grounded and calm in order to help your child feel grounded and calm.
While there are a lot of uncertainties right now, we can turn to evidence-based techniques to help bolster our resilience in the face of stressful events.
The UCLA Center for Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support (CARES) strives to create a community of support around children who are dealing with stress and anxiety. We do this through the creation and implementation of programs designed to help teachers, parents, and clinicians develop a greater understanding of the early signs of childhood anxiety and key strategies to help children and families build resilience. http://carescenter.ucla.edu/
written by Kate Sheehan, LCSW, Managing Director of CARES
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