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Helping Kids Manage Anxiety in Covid-19

Helping Kids Manage Anxiety in Covid-19

Posted: 14 Apr 2020

For the first two months of this year, children were back at school after a Christmas break and just getting into the swing of it all - practicing for plays, training for sports events, planning birthday parties or holidays and designing Matric Dance dresses. Then, within the space of a week or two, the reality of Corona Virus Disease 2019 and how it was sweeping across countries made us sit up in alarm. 


Now, with strict lock-down measures in South Africa, we are facing a new "normal" with very little certainty as to how this crisis will be resolved in the long term. Parents and children are suddenly thrust into home schooling with or without online support and have to find new ways to socialise with friends and extended family. Children who are co-parented may be separated from one of their parents for some time. Parents may be trying to work from home to maintain a professional career and young children may not understand why they are not accessible all of the time. Children whose parents are in essential services may fear for their wellbeing and show signs of separation anxiety. They could also be worried about loved ones who are ill or grandparents who are lonely.


We have not faced anything like this before, so it is normal for stress and anxiety levels to be high, particularly in children who will not yet have the cognitive capacity to reframe and rationalise what they might be hearing. Many parents, too, are bearing heavy concerns about providing for their families if their source of income has been affected.


Some of the emotions that children are feeling could lead to negative behaviours. Nervousness, worry, anxiety, stress, uncertainty, anger, sadness and disappointment are just some of the feelings they may be tapping into, as well as a fair amount of confusion. This can lead to physical symptoms such as stomach-aches, headaches and bedwetting or acting out by fighting with siblings, disappearing behind screens or being destructive. Before reacting hastily to our children's actions, we could look a little deeper and be mindful of the feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness that might be prompting their behaviour. The feelings are valid and need to be explored, allowed and experienced.


Adults need to offer consistent love, empathy and support, as well as being clear about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour. To do this they will need to regulate their own stress and anxiety first. This will enable parents to listen empathically and provide a calm and proactive approach to the situation. 


Children need the scaffolding of routine to help them shape their time.  They may not be old enough to self-regulate yet and could easily become bored and demotivated. The focus of the routine should be on essentials first - eating, sleeping and movement, followed by social, educational, play and relaxation needs. Balanced and healthy meals that are not loaded with sugar will keep blood sugar, and therefore moods, more stable. Adequate sleep will ensure that children are less fractious, and exercise will help to discharge nervous and frustrated energy and boost positive feelings. If children are separated from loved ones and caregivers, providing regular contact by way of phone calls or video-chats will be extremely important. Limiting news consumption and supervising screen time is a wise protective measure.  


It is helpful to give older children some choices around how to cope and to ask them to come up with strategies that they think might be useful at this time. Children and teens are far more likely to buy into routines that they have helped to create.


In terms of alleviating anxiety around Covid-19 itself, children need to be given facts about the disease clearly and simply, along with reassurance that our leaders and doctors are working hard to help us overcome it. 


Once children understand why they need to take precautions, they can then focus on what is in their control. This is empowering and anxiety-reducing. They need practical instruction on how to protect themselves by keeping their hands to themselves, washing their hands with soap and water, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding touching their eyes, mouth and nose. They need coaching on how to practice physical distancing. They ought to know that the symptoms of the disease are a fever, a dry cough and tiredness, and what they should do if they feel unwell. Children should understand that Covid-19 is a serious disease and it is making many people sick, but that most people who get it are recovering well and that, if children catch it, it is mostly very mild for them. There are many myths circulating about the virus that no doubt children may have also heard. Ask them what they already know, so that unnecessary fears can be put to rest. A clear and factual source of information is UNICEF at this link: https://www.unicef.org/stories/novel-coronavirus-outbreak-what-parents-should-know


If children are experiencing severe anxiety, parents can offer more assurance and some constructive distraction such as playing a game together or practicing a breathing exercise. This article offers several relaxation techniques and exercises for children: https://www.momjunction.com/articles/relaxation-exercises-and-techniques-for-children_00327517/


All of these measures will help to equip our children, not just for this challenge, but for the rest of their lives.



Photo credit : Sharon McCutcheon


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