Thanks to the coronavirus, almost everyone in America is now singing the ABCs every time they wash their hands. And while basic hygiene is having a moment right now, so is anxiety. Coronavirus has not only become the topic of conversation on playgrounds and in lunchrooms across America, but children are coming home with news articles and memos from their schools. And with so much information (and misinformation) being shared, many typically calm children have become concerned, while children who suffer from anxiety are experiencing an overwhelming struggle.
How do you help ease your child’s fears? In general, psychologists and pediatricians recommend the following.
Always acknowledge your child’s fears.
According to Linda Snell, a clinical social worker at New Method Wellness in San Juan Capistrano, CA, validation is crucial to calming a child’s anxiety. When we don’t acknowledge their fears, it creates a sense of avoidance, and that increases negative emotions.
Provide your children with accurate information.
And, make sure that your conversation is age-appropriate (more on that below). There’s a lot of misinformation out there, which can lead to increasing panic and irrational fears. Make sure you stay up-to-date through trusted news sources so that you can correct any inaccuracies your children may have learned.
Only talk about the virus when your children have questions.
“It is not necessary to talk about this virus daily,” explains psychologist Emily King who is based in Raleigh, NC. “Doing so will likely increase the anxiety in children, especially those who do not have a full understanding of the situation.”
Don’t skip activities or allow your healthy children to stay home from school/events.
“Don’t come up with an individual health policy, especially when there’s an adequate public health policy that’s addressing this,” urges pediatrician Douglas L. Krohn, who works for CareMount Medical in Briarcliff Manor, NY. “Follow the guidelines of the authorities, which will be your state or county department of health, and perhaps your school district. But don’t go beyond the public health policy and start prescribing for your child, or allowing your child to prescribe for himself, an individual health policy. That will reinforce irrational worry.
Empower your children to take ownership of their health so they aren’t sitting around waiting for something to happen to them.
There’s plenty more we can do to stave off the coronavirus besides just washing our hands (which is still very important!). A healthy diet, the proper amount of sleep, regular exercise and quality time with the people you love is always the best medicine. Let your children help you plan meals and activities so they feel like they’re doing their part.
Addressing your child’s concerns should always be done in an age-appropriate manner. Don’t overwhelm — only provide children with information they can handle, which does require parent intuition. Here are some helpful guidelines:
“You should discuss the truth and nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth,” says Krohn. “A preschooler doesn’t possess the abstract capacity to really handle the full truth. They’re either not going to get it, or it’s going to be confusing or unnecessarily scary.”
Begin by asking them to tell you what they know, advises Snell. Then, provide a brief explanation, confirming that coronavirus can make us sick but that’s why we have doctors and hospitals.
“If they begin waking up in the middle of night because of nightmares, explore their fears,” Snell says. “Don’t tell them, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it’ — that’s invalidating. Instead, let them know it’s okay to talk about their concerns.”
At this age, you’ll have less control over what your children hear outside of the home, so they may come home from school with questions. Keep your answers simple and stress the importance of washing hands and staying home when you don’t feel well.
“It’s important to let school-age children know that, yes, there is a virus going around that is new to us,” explains King. “But, we fully trust our doctors and scientists to give us recommendations on a plan of care if we end up getting it. Trusting adults who know more than they do can be very helpful in reducing anxiety in children.”
Tweens & teens
Thanks to smartphones, there’s nothing you’re going to tell your tween/teen that they haven’t already read on their device. Help ease their fears by teaching them which news outlets and medical sources are trustworthy. King says you should continue to encourage your children to come to you with questions, and even work together to research and learn accurate information.
“It’s up to you to be proactive so that you can control not just the depth of the information, but its accuracy,” explains Krohn. “There’s a tremendous amount of content and not all of it is on the money. Some of it is intended to be sensationalistic. Get ahead of it to make sure that the information they have is accurate, and arm them with the ability to deny claims that are very scary and may be either entirely false or very improbable.”
How to determine if your child is overly anxious and what to do about it
A little anxiety is okay, and you should expect some questions and curiosity. But if your child’s fears cause distress, withdrawal, or begin to impact their functioning in terms of sleep, appetite, play, mood, or school attendance, then consider speaking with a mental health provider. Do not take your child to the pediatrician to calm their fears, but you can call your doctor for recommendations.
While searching for the right therapist, there are apps and podcasts available that can help your child learn to meditate and self-calm. Or, teach them some grounding techniques.
“Grounding is pretty quick and easy to pick up, and you don’t need a mental health professional to do it,” says Snell. “Teach your child to use their senses. Ask, what do you smell right now?
What do you see? What can you touch? Once children are 9 or 10 years old, you can add essential oils, which are very calming. Let them smell it or put a bit on their wrist.”
Snell also recommends practicing breathing techniques. For example, take a deep breath in, hold it for three seconds and then exhale for three seconds. Encourage your child to do this exercise when they wake up, at lunchtime and in the evening.
Don’t forget to validate your children’s concerns!
Every expert emphasized the importance of taking a few minutes to sit down, answer your child’s questions and talk about their fears. Validation is the key component to calming any child’s nerves or anxiety. Regular validation will decrease their anxiety.
While you’re at it, are 15 must-haves to keep kids healthy. (Don’t forget the hand-washing, either).