With more than one quarter of the world’s population under lockdown conditions and more sure to follow, anxiety and fear are widespread. Children, of course, are not immune to the worry, and with millions of schools now closed and many parents suffering stress of their own, the impact on children’s everyday lives is acute. If your child already suffers from anxiety or depression, or has a sensitive disposition, their anxiety levels have probably skyrocketed.
In the UK, the charity Childline has reported a huge increase in the numbers of children calling to talk about their coronavirus fears, with more than two thirds of the increase in calls happening over the last week, since schools in the UK closed. Given the wall-to-wall media coverage, it’s difficult for children to escape the reality of the situation, but what can parents do to help an anxious child through this period?
Listen to Your Parenting Instincts
You know your child better than anyone else, including any parenting expert or professional. What’s right for one child is not right for another.
From anything you read or hear about how to help an anxious child (including this!), you should only take what you think is right for your family – ignore the rest.
Don’t Avoid the Issue, Lie, or Pretend It’s Not Happening
Some parents feel that the best way to handle the covid-19 crisis is to shield their children from what is happening, as far as possible. That, as ever, is a personal choice, but in my experience, such an approach is not helpful for most children suffering from anxiety. Your child needs to know that they can rely on you to be honest with them. If you try to pretend the situation isn’t happening, or fib about the reasons for what’s going on, trust between you and your child will be diminished, and that will only send your child’s anxiety skyrocketing.
Instead, it’s important to be ready to talk about the issue whenever your child wants to, and to be calm and truthful, in an age-appropriate manner.
If anxious children don’t have the facts, their fears and imagination can run away with them, making them even more fearful. Correct and truthful age-appropriate facts will help your anxious child to feel more in control.
Start with What Your Child Already Knows
Try to gently find out what your child already knows about the situation – depending on their age, they will no doubt have heard things from friends, or been told things by their school, or seen something on the news. By asking what they think about the situation, you can ascertain their current level of knowledge and understanding, and nip in the bud any false information they’ve been worrying about.
Don’t Interrupt or Minimise Your Child’s Fears
Once you’re having a conversation on the coronavirus topic, let your child keep talking. Don’t rush to interrupt to correct them or to calm a worry – let them finish. It’s also important not to minimise or brush off any fears. Some of your children’s worries might seem obviously unfounded to you, or highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean the fears are not real. For example, if your anxious child is worried that they will catch coronavirus from talking to a friend on the phone, or that their rabbit will die from the disease – these are real and genuine fears, no matter how minor or unlikely they may feel to you as an informed adult. Acknowledge the fear: “I can see why that’s bothering you, we certainly want to keep bunny safe.”
Depending on your own child, you can then go ahead to reassure the child that – as far as we know – rabbits won’t catch the disease, and that it can’t be transmitted by phone.
If your child is old enough and literate enough, help them to research their own answers to these fears, using trustworthy online sources:
“Let’s look that up and make sure that bunny will be OK.”
Acknowledge and Own the Anxiety with Your Child
Let your anxious child know that yes, you are worried too – but that doctors and your government have given everyone advice on how to stay safe, and that everyone is doing their very best to look after anyone who gets ill.
By acknowledging that grown-ups are worried too – but not panicked – you will help your child to normalise their worries and to feel reassured that they’re not silly for worrying.
There’s a fine line to draw here, and some believe that a parent should not show any concern or worry at all. In my view, children pick up on their parents’ unspoken fears anyway. If you claim to be unconcerned but your child picks up a different vibe from you, what does that do to the trust between you? Better to acknowledge that it’s a worrying time, but to offer reassurance that everyone is doing what they can.
Don’t Sugarcoat Difficult Answers
Let’s say your child is worried that an elderly grandparent may die. You can’t in all honesty say that this won’t happen. What you can say is that Nana has listened to all the advice and that she is safe at home (or in a care home, or wherever she is) and that the government is trying to take extra care of people who need the extra care, like Nana – and of course that you as a family will do everything you can to keep her safe. Follow this up with concrete examples of how people are rallying around the elderly, getting their shopping and prescriptions, and looking after them.
Give Your Child A Way to Make a Difference
Try to find something age appropriate which your child can do to help others. This could be something as simple as painting a rainbow to put in your window, or perhaps making extra phone calls or skype calls to distant family members to remind them they are loved and missed.
Perhaps they could make some cards or write letters which you can post to a local care home to help cheer the residents there.
Small acts of kindness which can be safely done from home will help your child see how much positivity there still is in the world.
Create a Sustainable Structure
With schools closed and children’s clubs and activities cancelled, your anxious child is probably having to adjust to a completely different way of life.
However, most anxious children feel more secure when there is a certain structure to life and when they know what to expect.
Within reason, and within the dynamics of your own existing family life, try to maintain some semblance of normality. For example, keep to your normal bedtime and mealtime routines. Go out for a walk at the same time each day, or call your relatives in the same regular slot. If you child has never tried meditation before, think about creating a regular slot for that too – it’s easier than you think to teach a child to meditate, and the benefits can be huge for anxious children.
Don’t impose impossibly optimistic school-at-home regimes or try to regulate every minute of the day – that’s not sustainable, and arguably not good for children in any case. But a loose daily structure will help both you and your anxious child cope with these strange and deeply unsettling times.
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