By Dr Jeanné Roux, an educational psychologist from Pretoria, registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. She has a special interest in helping parents and their children unravel the causes of academic and emotional difficulties. She writes for Impaq Education, a curriculum provider for home and tutor education.
It goes without saying that we are all on edge, unsure of tomorrow and overwhelmed by the media. Coronavirus anxiety is expected. Learning how to deal with it in a healthy way will make the whole family more resilient, both now and when the pandemic is finally over.
What is anxiety?
Simply put, anxious people worry when there is nothing really to worry about. The “what if” types of thoughts causes stress in the body, that continues even after the cause of the stress is gone.
Beating coronavirus anxiety in kids
Many parents are experiencing a more difficult time dealing with COVID-19 than their children. Naturally, some of the coronavirus anxiety that kids are experiencing may be unintentionally passed on by worried parents.
Here’s how you can beat it:
Be a positive role model for your children.
Put the oxygen mask on first before you help your child. Calmly find ways to deal with your own anxieties so your kids can learn how to deal with theirs, now and in the future:
- Live in the “here and now”. Focus on what is actually happening and don’t get carried away with worst-case scenarios.
- Identify and get help for your own anxieties first.
- Beware of fake news. Rely on only trustworthy information from credible sources.
- Share feel-good news with your children and create awareness of the “silver lining”.
- Stick to an established routine that involves exercise, regular meals, and healthy amounts of sleep – this is crucial for regulating our moods and our worries. Look for ways to be flexible and start new routines to create a productive and healthier lifestyle in spite of the restrictions.
Monitor your children
Once you have taken care of yourself, you will be able to identify your child’s anxiety. This may be tricky, because each child has their own unique behaviour patterns. Look out for:
- Reassurance-seeking (“Are we going to be okay? Is Grandpa going to be okay?”)
- Reluctance to separate from parents
- Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
- Moodiness and irritability
- Tantrums or meltdowns
- Trouble sleeping
Talk about their anxiety
Not talking about something can make children worry more. Convey the facts in a realistic and reassuring way. You can, for example, say, “People are getting sick, but most of them get well and healthy again”.
- Younger Learners – these children experience difficulty in expressing how they are feeling.
- Use a “feelings chart” with pictures describing emotions instead of saying “Tell me how anxious you are”. Find one on the internet, then ask your child to point to the feeling and/or picture representing an emotion that they are currently experiencing.
- They can also draw pictures about things they feel happy or sad about.
- Older learners – these kids are more aware of, and able to articulate, how they are feeling.
- Ask “forced-choice questions.” If you ask a vague question, you’re going to get a vague answer. So instead of asking “How was your day?” maybe ask “Did your anxiety get in the way of you having a good day today?”.
- Teenagers – be aware that direct questions can create tension and hostility.
- Start talking about yourself first. For example, say, “I saw this article today and it made me wonder about this and that. Did you experience something like that? What’s your reaction to it?”.
- Wait a bit first and then attempt to discuss the matter with them at a later stage when they are calm and more willing to talk.
- They can also use a journal or art activities to express their feelings and experiences.
Structure their day
Kids benefit from boundaries as much as we do. Children easily get bored or fretful when facing a day without structure and anxiety can thrive under those circumstances.
- Alternate chores or schoolwork with more fun activities that your children enjoy, and periods of free time.
- Incorporate safe, outdoor activities to ensure kids get exercise.
- Encourage your child to socialise with friends via video chats and social media. Teenagers especially will appreciate this.
Avoid giving too much reassurance
Kids can become too reliant on reassurance and will want to hear it more and more often, and when a parent can’t give this, their coronavirus anxiety will worsen. Instead, try the following:
- Remind children of what they can still enjoy despite challenges.
- Encourage children to focus on the present.
- Ask them to make a list of, or draw things, they are looking forward to doing when the lockdown is over. This reassures them that current circumstances are only temporary.
Focus on what you’re doing to stay safe
Remind them that if they wash their hands frequently and wear their masks in public, they will be safe. This will empower them. Create a hand-washing song to make this activity more fun for younger children.
Be aware of signs and symptoms that your child may be experiencing coronavirus anxiety. Now is not the time to “wait and see”. Seek professional help if your child’s normal functioning is impaired by their anxiety.
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