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Helping Our Children Cope With COVID-19 Anxiety

How can you help your children during this time?

Since the COVID-19 outbreak has canceled most schools across the U.S., many parents and children are spending their springtime together at home. Children and teens may find it particularly difficult to understand the complexity of the situation, especially as the news changes by the day. This can lead to increased anxiety and depression for them, and as parents, we want to make sure you have the tools at your disposal to help them through this trying time.

Children will all respond to what’s going on differently, based on a variety of factors. According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), how a child responds to the news depends on different factors, such as:

  • Age of the child
  • Language/comprehension abilities and developmental level of the child
  • Presence, severity, and type of anxiety disorder(s) or other psychiatric conditions
  • Prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self
  • The occurrence of other recent stressors or major life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, major move, change of school), etc.

Because not all children and teens respond to stress the same way, or even know how to identify stress, parents will need to be on the lookout for signs that their loved ones are experiencing any symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those signs are:

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
  • Poor school performance or avoiding school
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

So what can you do during these times if these signs are present in your household? The New York Times recommends four steps:

Normalize Anxiety. Anxiety can be healthy. But not all adolescents, or adults, know that it typically acts as a useful and protective emotion. Accordingly, teenagers sometimes fear that their heightened nerves signal the onset of a full-blown anxiety disorder. They become worried about the fact that they are worried. We can encourage teenagers to channel their discomfort into useful action, such as learning about and following the recommended health guidelines.

Offer Perspective. We can help adolescents keep their worries about the coronavirus at an appropriate level by making sure they don’t overestimate the dangers or underestimate their ability to protect themselves from those dangers. Toward this end, we might help by giving them perspective, and saying: “Right now, the health risk from coronavirus is very low for most Americans.” 

To this we can add, “And there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk even further: Keep your hands clean and away from your face, avoid anyone who might be coughing or sneezing and protect your immune system by getting enough sleep.”

Shift the Spotlight. During difficult times, research suggests that teenagers feel better when they turn their attention to supporting others. Knowing this, we can remind teenagers that we wash our hands and follow other health recommendations not only to protect ourselves but also to help to ease the strain on local medical systems. 

Along the same lines, adults can note that making personal sacrifices — such as postponing a vacation or staying home if we’re not feeling well — helps reduce the chance of carrying illness into our own communities. If you are stocking up on groceries, take the opportunity to talk to your kids about the challenges faced by people in need and consider donating nonperishables to a local food bank.

Encourage Distraction. Teenagers who are feeling highly anxious about Covid-19 should be encouraged to take a break from seeking, or even accidentally encountering, information about the virus. 

For example, we might ask teenagers to consider scaling back how often they check their phones for information updates, or to trust that we’ll share any significant news should it arrive. Similarly, we might encourage finding distractions, such as doing their homework or watching a favorite show, while shielding themselves from digital intrusions.

Manage Your Own Anxiety. Anxious parents are more likely to have anxious teenagers. Teenagers can tell when adults are saying one thing and feeling another. Offering reassuring words won’t do much good when our own anxiety is riding high. And being worn thin by tension leaves us less able to comfort teenagers and young adults who feel upset about missing events. 

Before trying to support a fretful teenager, tense adults should take steps to calm their own nerves. To do so, they can use the same strategies outlined above. Modeling a level-headed response is the best way to keep anxiety from getting the better of our teenagers as we all find our way through this new and uncertain challenge.

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