Helping Kids Who Worry About Returning to Activities During COVID-19

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Teenager wearing a mask The summer of COVID-19 is upon us. As the warm weather arrives and stay-at-home restrictions ease, most children are excited to see friends, swim in pools and return to an active lifestyle. However, some children and teens are plagued with worry, sadness and uncertainty – especially about what their world may look like if, when or how school starts again in the fall.

It's a scary time in the world, and our kids have certainly noticed. How can you help your child or teen cope with today's uncertainty, better plan for each new phase and avoid the "what if" trap? As caregivers, you can be their guide during this time of uncertainty.

Reopening: Focus on what you can control

Regardless of what phase of reopening your community is in, or what the trends in your state look like at this moment in time, there are three tried-and-true methods to reduce the spread of the virus:

  • Physical distancing
  • Wearing a face mask that covers both your nose and mouth
  • Frequent hand washing

While the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have fluctuated in recent months, we must remain vigilant – especially as numbers rise in other areas of the country. With stay-at-home orders in our area lifted or loosened, there are two things to stress with your kids:

  • What your kids can do now: riding bikes in the neighborhood, kicking a soccer ball back and forth, and play dates or small gatherings with friends outside
  • What your kids should not do yet: hug or kiss people they don't live with, share drinks or food with friends, or play contact sports.

Tips to reassure your child

As a parent, you should model proper safety practices and praise your kids when they are actively obeying safe practices. Younger children may need frequent reminders to wear their masks and stay apart from others, while children who worry a lot may need reassurance they are doing everything in their power to keep themselves safe.

You can help your worrying child by:

  • Listening to their fears. Acknowledge their feelings and ensure they feel comfortable expressing themselves to you.
  • Talking through any extreme compulsions your child has – such as repeatedly washing their hands or refusing to interact in-person with friends. Help your child understand what they are feeling when they do these activities and how excessive behaviors are negatively impacting their lives.
  • Creating and following a daily schedule. Your anxious child will appreciate knowing what to expect each day, and your spontaneous child will learn to plan around must-do activities.
  • Plan several special events for the summer – things different than your day-to-day activities. It can be something big like a vacation or something small like a family movie night at home. Having positive events to look forward to can help ease the challenges of activities your child can't do yet.

If you notice your child is spending a lot of time preoccupied with worry – and seek frequent reassurance from you – it may be helpful in instill "worry time". This is dedicated time (generally 5-10 minutes a day) when your child can express their worries freely, while you validate their distress and express confidence that – together – you will be able to manage whatever comes next. Try not to have the worry talk right before bed; instead, schedule it before an activity your child enjoys so it's easier to transition from worrying to having fun.

It's important to remember is that the virus isn't getting weaker. It's not going away. And a vaccine is still months – or perhaps years – away. Until then we must do all we can to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

Our hope is that COVID-19 testing will become more readily available – even to people without symptoms. Until then, we must continue practices we know are working: physical distancing, wearing masks and frequent hand washing.

What to expect in the fall

While the course of the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain, school – in one form or another – will start in the fall for millions of kids. Whether classes will be held in-person, online or a hybrid of both will differ by district, county and state. Many local school districts are planning for all options, with a hope to resume at least some in-person learning when school starts in the fall.

It may help your child if you emphasize what they can control and what they can't. They may not have any control over whether their school will open in the fall, but they can better prepare themselves for the upcoming school year by catching up on reading, practicing math and getting general school supplies. You can also reinforce to them that parents, teachers, health experts and community leaders are working very hard to make sure they use all the information available to make safe choices for all kids.

Resources

Contributors: Yesenia A. Marroquin, PhD, and Yesenia Sanchez-Kleinberg, MD

Yesenia Sanchez-Kleinberg, MD, is a third-year resident in general pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Yesenia Marroquin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist within the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic (ABC) at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

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