Children get their cues on how to react to a situation from the adults around them—especially the adults they rely on.
And since the COVID-19 situation is an unfamiliar and unexpected one for all of us, now is an especially important time to be mindful of the kind of cues we’re giving.
Your child may be worried about their own health or that of older people they love, upset by the sudden separation from school friends and confused by the uncertainty of what will happen next.
“Children are much more able to pick up on the feelings and worries of adults than we sometimes give them credit for, which means the first step to handling a child’s anxiety is to manage our own,” says Robert L. Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., chair of Carilion Clinic Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine. “From there, we can act as a role model for preparedness, healthy coping skills and compassion for others—all lessons that can last children a lifetime.”
Talking to Your Child About COVID-19
Sometimes our instinct as a parent is to shelter our child from scary news. But the fact is that your child is almost certainly learning about COVID-19 from someone—and if it isn’t you, it could be a misinformed peer or a sensationalized media source.
Have an honest but age-appropriate conversation about the illness with your child. The details you share will depend on their level of maturity, but you can tell your child that:
- Anyone can have COVID-19—and just because someone is a certain ethnicity, doesn’t mean they have it
- Most people who catch COVID-19 will get better without special medical care
- Doctors think that most kids who catch it will not get very sick at all
- Getting sick does not necessarily mean getting COVID-19; it is still flu season and it’s now spring allergy season too
Reassure your child that you have a plan to take care of them if they get sick—just like always.
Your child may be also worried about what would happen to them if you were to get sick. “Now is the time to line up your support network, if you haven’t already,” says Dr. Trestman. “Tell your child they won’t need to worry about being cared for if you get sick—and let them know which familiar people they will be able to rely on if that happens.”
Older children who are more aware of the news may feel better knowing you have a plan for getting food and household items if stores have shortages or your family needs to self-isolate at home.
Ask your child open-ended questions about how they are feeling or what they are thinking about COVID-19. Make sure they know you are available to talk again at any time if they have more questions or feel worried.
Maintaining a Sense of Safety
Encourage—and model—healthy, self-supporting behaviors for your child. That includes eating well, physical activity, getting enough sleep and taking mental breaks. Now could also be a good time to practice stress-managing tools, like yoga, meditation or breathing exercises, as a family.
Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of COVID-19. That includes social media, too. Constantly hearing or reading about the illness and its social effects can easily raise anxiety levels. Young children may also overhear things they don’t fully understand, and that can cause them to imagine the worst.
Help your child feel more in control. While you don’t want to encourage obsessive behaviors, letting your child know that they can take steps against COVID-19 may make them feel less helpless. Show your child how to correctly wash their hands and use hand sanitizer. Remind them to cover their coughs and sneezes and then throw away used tissues. Children of all ages may feel good about helping to clean and disinfect surfaces in your home.
Stick to routines as much as you can. You can help maintain stability in your child’s new routine at home by scheduling study times and keeping to usual waking and bedtimes. If your child is missing sports practice or art classes, exercise or do crafts together at home.
Watching out for Symptoms of Anxiety
Not all children will express anxiety in the same way, but signs that your child may be struggling with the COVID-19 situation include:
- Increased worry or sadness
- Excessive irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Unexplained headaches or body aches
- In younger children, regressive behaviors such as bedwetting
- In preteens and teens, “acting out” behaviors such as fighting with others
- In preteens and teens, new or increased use of alcohol, nicotine or drugs
"Some level of anxious feelings is a normal response to a stressful, unusual situation," says Dr. Trestman. "But if you notice major behavioral changes in your child, or if anxiety is interfering with their daily activities, do not hesitate to share your concerns with a mental health professional or your child’s health care provider."
This article was reviewed March 19, 2020 by Robert L. Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., chair of Carilion Clinic Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.
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