How to Help Manage your Child’s Anxiety around COVID-19

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Teen girl wearing a protective mask The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine brings with it a renewed sense of optimism and hope. But there’s still a long way to go before life gets back to normal. This ongoing uncertainty is difficult to tolerate and can lead to anxiety, especially in children. Your child may worry about what life after COVID-19 will be like, and whether we’ll face another pandemic in the future.

“Anxiety wants an answer now,” says Yesenia Marroquin, PhD, clinical psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “The goal is to tolerate this uncertainty and at the same time recognize that we will get through this.”

You can help your child or teen cope with today’s uncertainty and avoid the “what if” trap with these tips.

Focus on what you can control

During times of uncertainty and stress, it’s important to focus on the things you can control: your family’s behavior and the way you manage your feelings.

To help your child regain a sense of control over their everyday lives, encourage them to focus on what they can do, as opposed to what they can’t do. Consider creating a list of fun activities to do at home together or online with friends.

For older children and teens who are really struggling with not seeing their friends in person, assess your family’s risk level and determine if there is at least one person your child can have safe in-person contact with, even if it’s standing on either side of an open window with masks on. Finding something that is within your comfort level and providing that option to your adolescent may help alleviate their stress and frustration.

For more ways to help your child regain a sense of control, read “Talking to Your Child About the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Tips to reassure your child

Your child’s level of anxiety may shift according to their age and developmental stage. The important thing is to adopt a supportive stance and help manage any associated worries. Remind your child that your family has tolerated this way of life for a long time and will work together to continue to do so.

You can help your worrying child by:

  • Listening to their fears and validating their feelings. Hold space for your child’s feelings of grief and frustration around all the things the pandemic has impacted, and ensure they feel comfortable expressing themselves to you.
  • Talking through any extreme compulsions your child has – such as repeatedly washing their hands. Help your child understand what they are feeling when they do these activities and how these 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.

If you notice your child is spending a lot of time preoccupied with worry – and seeking frequent reassurance from you – it may be helpful to plan "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. Redirect your child when they want to talk about their worries outside of “worry time.” Try not to have “worry time” right before bed; instead, schedule it before an activity your child enjoys so it's easier to transition from worrying to having fun.

Model healthy coping behaviors

This is a scary time, and our kids aren’t the only ones struggling with uncertainty. In order to help your child manage their anxiety, you must first recognize and validate your own worries and fears.

“This isn’t about faking a positive attitude,” says Dr. Marroquin. “This is about letting your kids know that you recognize your worry, and you are caring for your feelings appropriately and focusing on what you can control.”

When you do feel stressed, you can model healthy coping behaviors for your children by choosing to spend less time on the news, monitoring conversations with other adults or participating in a soothing activity, such as drinking a cup of tea or going for a walk. While these behaviors can’t make everything better, they will allow your brain to stop ruminating on worst-case scenarios and reset focus on the things you can control.

Find more ways to help your family navigate the pandemic.

Contributor: Yesenia A. Marroquin, PhD, clinical psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

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