COVID-19 – Information and Tips for Anxious Minds, Big and Little
Created on August 5, 2017. Last updated on February 7th, 2021 at 11:47 pm
Original post by John Guerry, Ph.D. & Yesenia Marroquin, Ph.D., Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Updated by Parker L. Huston, Ph.D., Pediatric Psychology Department, Nationwide Children’s Hospital
Is your child acting normally in response to an abnormal situation, or do they need more help? Watching this 2-minute video can help parents and other caregivers understand the difference.
COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in early 2020. Since that time the WHO reports that, as of early October, 2020, there have been over 37 million reported cases and over 1 million deaths across the globe as a result of the COVID-19 virus. For current information on the pandemic, families can consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the WHO websites. It is also strongly recommended that all families follow the latest recommendations for reasonable precautions, including social distancing and necessary travel restrictions where you live and work. Check with your local or state public health organizations for specific regulations in your area.
As time has passed, many families have struggled with frequent changes in school, work, and social expectations regarding COVID-19 precautions. Medical and behavioral health professionals across the globe are urging us to consider the big picture. Heavy precautions worked as intended to slow the spread of the virus when followed. These precautions will continue to work towards preventing an even larger scale outbreak while scientists work to find a long-term solution. In the meantime, many of us are wondering how to manage the new routines and expectations we are facing. Such frequent and large-scale societal changes can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and frustration. Knowledge about, and response to, COVID-19 has also become a political topic, with frequent misinformation shared on a large scale, and has contributed to feelings of unease about how to best keep your family and children safe and functioning well.
We know that anxiety can serve to protect us from danger because it motivates action to move away from or mitigate the threat. In a situation such as this one, a certain amount of anxiety is normal and even helpful. Worry about getting sick or infecting others drives us to follow the recommendations of the CDC and mandates issued by our local government leaders. However, the COVID-19 pandemic can also trigger an excess of anxiety, which can lead to feelings of panic or a response that does not match the actual threat.
Below are some specific strategies that parents and caregivers may find useful to help manage anxiety for their children (and themselves):
Talk to your child or adolescent. Speak with your kids to learn what they know about COVID-19. Start by asking questions so they can tell you what they have heard or are concerned about. Validate that this is an uncertain time and that many people are feeling uneasy. Reassure them that you will get through this experience as a family and learn together how to manage changes. Share your factual knowledge with your children (see below for resources). Much of the anxiety about our present situation with COVID-19 comes from uncertainty and misconceptions about the virus. Even if parents try to limit access to news, children and adolescents are hearing and learning about COVID-19 from a variety of sources, and some can be inaccurate. For example, many young people mistakenly believe that the unprecedented measures being taken mean that if they contract the virus they will certainly die. Instead, it could be helpful to explain to your child that the primary purpose of social distancing is to protect vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly and/or those with underlying medical conditions. See this comic that explains coronavirus and how to handle these strange, uncertain times in kid-friendly terms. Similarly, the American Psychological Association recently published, “A Kid’s Guide to Coronavirus”; you can download a free digital copy here. You may also find it helpful to read this article from PBS about how to talk to kids about coronavirus.
Address their anxiety directly. If your children are expressing concern or anxiety about COVID-19 and/or the associated precautions, talk with them directly about these feelings. A particular challenge for many children this year has been changes to school routine and expectations. See this Back-to-school Guide for some helpful tips on how to talk with your kids and prepare them for this unconventional school year and any changes that may happen.
Share accurate health information about COVID-19. As noted above, it is important to consult reliable sources of information when informing loved ones of the situation and any developments over time. It might be helpful to identify a small number of trusted sources to obtain the most current health information, such as the CDC, the WHO, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, and this helpful parents’ guide from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. In addition, consider limiting the amount of time that you and your family are spending consuming news and social media each day. It is far better for your household’s anxiety and overall well-being to “unplug” and devote the majority of time engaging in valued activities and self-care.
Stick to a routine (as much as possible). Most kids rely on structure in their daily lives for a sense of safety and well-being. Although the closure or modification of schools and childcare centers in our communities are an essential precaution to reduce the risk for spread of infection, the loss of a predictable routine can be particularly disorienting and trying for younger people. Following a schedule like this one can go a long way to helping your child (and you) feel more grounded. It can be difficult to incorporate new routines and habits into your day. Follow this healthy habits guide to work on making a new routine feel more comfortable and normal. Consider implementing a reward system for younger kids to help them stick with their new routine(s) and praise them whenever possible when they are doing the right thing.
Keep up social interaction– virtually or in-person with precautions. Use technology to help your kids stay in contact with their friends, teachers, and other important people in their lives that they would typically interact with face-to-face. Use video chat whenever possible to enhance their connection with one another. Consider including video chat time as a part of their daily routine (e.g., when they otherwise would have a chance to hang out with friends, like during recess, lunchtime, or after school). As people resume in-person contact, it is important to continue to follow the latest recommendations about precautions (e.g., physical distancing, masks).
Maintain house rules and set limits on kids’ behavior. During times of stress, parents sometimes relax typical expectations for their kids’ behavior and skip following through on natural consequences or rewards. Continue to enforce limits as much as possible, even if you alter them slightly to account for necessary changes in routine. This will help kids feel a sense of normalcy. At the same time, recognize that stress and worry sometimes results in unusual behavior and acting out. Children often express anxiety in different ways (e.g., body aches, irritability), so it is important to notice these changes and talk to your kids about the feelings underlying their behavior. Here is a list of conversation starters to get going with these discussions in your home.
Set a good example for self-care. The most important thing you can do to take care of your family is to take care of yourself. Children, in particular, will take your cues regarding how to respond to this public health crisis and how worried they should be. Make sure that you and your family are prioritizing a regular sleep schedule, eating healthy meals, and maintaining (or beginning) an exercise routine. Give yourself permission to worry during this uncertain time; however, consider whether 1) it may be best to seek outside support from your friends and adult family members, and 2) discuss your own concerns away from your child/adolescent, so you may speak freely. Set limits for yourself regarding how much news/social media to consume on a daily basis. As noted above, choose 2-3 reliable sources of news and avoid hunting for other troubling news on social media, blogs, and unreliable sources.