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Helping Kids Cope with Coronavirus-Related Anxiety

By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW

In a previous blog, we discussed tips for managing your own coronavirus-related anxiety. Many people also have the task of helping their kids deal with a variety of difficult emotions right now. If you find yourself in this position, consider the following tips:

Maintain routines and have a schedule.

Knowing what’s coming next gives kids a sense of security and consistency. As much as possible, stick to routines that were in place before, such as bedtime and mealtime routines. Create daily or weekly schedules including both learning-related activities (e.g., remote learning or reading time) and relaxing activities (e.g., play time or movie night). Involve your child in creating the schedule to get them invested, and hang the schedule up somewhere where your child can see it.

Limit exposure to news.

While it can be important to stay up to date with the news, the language and images on the news and social media can be anxiety-inducing for both you and children. Consider turning off the TV during the day and adjusting your push notification settings so that you’re in control of when you and your child receive new information.


Share (basic) information and discuss what’s within their control.

It’s understandable that kids may have questions about coronavirus and how it’s affecting their lives. Keep your kids in the know by sharing age-appropriate factual information with them in as simple language as possible. In discussing the virus, direct the conversation to what your kids can do (for example, wash their hands for at least 20 seconds) to help them feel a sense of control. This illustration is one of many resources that aims to explain to kids what coronavirus is and how they can help keep themselves and loved ones safe.

Resist the urge to excessively reassure…

While a healthy dose of reassurance is okay (think: “We’re going to get through this”), be careful not to excessively reassure your child. Excessive reassurance — such as, “You’ll definitely be able to go to camp this summer,” and “Nothing’s going to happen to any of us” — may lead to unrealistic expectations, and might make it harder for your child to work through their emotions if the worst case scenario does happen. Excessive reassurance may also be experienced by children as invalidating, meaning that it suggests the child shouldn’t be feeling whatever they’re feeling.

…by sticking to validation.

Validating simply means communicating that something makes sense. When kids receive validation from their caregivers they’re more likely to feel heard and understood, and learn that it’s okay for them to experience emotions.

Example of a validating statement: “I can see how worried you are. It can be really overwhelming to feel so worried.”

Example of an invalidating statement: “There’s no need to worry. You’ll be okay, I promise.”


Identify new opportunities.

Your child may be focused on all the things they can’t do right now. Help them identify things they can do as a result of the current situation. If your child is disappointed that the tennis season ended early, organize a table tennis competition at home. If your child was involved in community service efforts that are being put on hold, come up with ways to give back to health professionals or neighbors. Highlight other new opportunities your child will get to experience, such as having sleepovers in their sibling’s room or getting to see what their pet really does while they’re normally at school!


Model your own emotion regulation.

It’s okay to be emotional and vulnerable in front of kids — in fact, it can even be beneficial. When kids observe caregivers coping with difficult emotions, they learn what to do when their own show up. So if you’re feeling anxious, instead of trying to manage it behind closed doors, you may share with your child something like, “You know, I’ve been feeling really anxious today and I think it might be helpful to take a few deep breaths. I’m going to try that to see if I can feel a little calmer.” Then, when you notice your child attempting to regulate their own emotions, praise their efforts!

Help your child externalize anxiety.

One way to help kids manage their anxiety is by externalizing, which involves assigning the anxiety to a character or concrete image. Maybe anxiety shows up as a “worry monster” who’s always frazzled and is followed around by a raining cloud. Discuss what happens when the worry monster shows up and what tools your child could use to battle the monster when it does. Could your child imagine the monster tripping and falling? Could they say something back to the monster? Externalizing is a great way to teach kids to separate from their emotions and use problem-solving strategies when they arise.

Designate worry time.

For children whose days seemed to be consumed by worrying, consider designating a few minutes of worry time per day. Choose a time, place, and length of time (for example, at 4PM in the living room for 10 minutes), but be sure not to schedule it too close to bedtime. Encourage your child to write down a few words to describe their worry thought on a piece of paper as they come up throughout the day (you may even turn this into an activity by designing a “worry box” with your child to put the worry thoughts in!). Every time your child writes down a worry thought, instruct them to refocus their attention to something happening in the present moment, for example by using any of their five senses. When the time comes, revisit the worry thoughts — but only for the designated amount of time!


Just like adults, kids may also be experiencing a spike in anxiety right now. Not only can trying out these tips help kids manage current worries — it may also lead to the development of lifelong emotion regulation skills!


Disclaimer


This site is for information only. It is not therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise, provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local emergency number.


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