By Kate Sheehan LCSW
Anxiety thrives on uncertainty. These are uncertain times. We can expect our children to feel more than the usual amount of anxiety due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system.
For kids with anxiety disorders, fears and unknowns may become overwhelming. Parents, educators and other caring adults can help guide children into successful anxiety management strategies. Here are a few tips.
1. Keep perspective.
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. 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 none of us know or can possibly know. 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 all communicating together to keep everyone as safe as possible.
- Help your child limit the amount of news they take 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.
2. 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, 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 video chat.
- Set up play breaks that loop in friends near or far. Getting oxygen into our system by moving, laughing or playing can unwind kids’ anxiety spirals.
3. Control what you can — structure is our friend!
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!
- 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 a child 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 they can do can help them feel empowered with things that they can control (e.g., allowing them to choose an activity to add to the schedule), fills our need to have some control over our days.
4. Keep active.
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:
- Dance party. Crank up a playlist. 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.
- Playing 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 (like a carpet) or even on the bed can also help massage our spine and ease some tension.
- You can even exercise while Netflix’ing. Try bouts of stretches, crunches, hops, and other mixes of aerobic activity with stretching. Apps like 7 Min Workout from DownDog can give you more ideas.
5. Stay grounded.
We can expect that kids’ anxiety will ramp up during this unusual time. For some folks with anxiety, they are finding it helpful to have a specific thing to worry about (rather than all the random worries their anxiety presents to them on a daily basis). But for others, having evidence of a need to worry will only make their anxiety stronger. 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
- Take advantage of free mindfulness apps like Insight Timer, Smiling Mind, or Enso Timer. Giving anxious kids a bell or a voice or a video to focus on during meditation can help their thoughts stay in the moment instead of in their anxieties.
- 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. Free self-compassion meditations are available here and here.
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.
About Kate Sheehan LCSW
Kate Sheehan is a licensed clinical social worker and the Managing Director for the CARES Center.