By Janet Ryan-Newell. CEO, R. Psychologist – Family Solutions Group
The world is changing at a rapid and bewildering rate due to COVID-19. Adjusting to the rapid changes is stretching all of us… just a month ago, many of us were comfortably planning our weekends, and now we are watching global events unfold that we cannot begin to fully grasp. New layers of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety are heightened by the endless news cycles, which are not only overwhelming, confusing, and scary to adults but are indecipherable to a child.
As I am writing this, my very capable 14-year-old is doing her home schooling next to me in my office. If you asked, she would tell you that she feels fine about everything that is going on and that she is enjoying the break from school – but not the break from her friends. However, my teen has spent more time in my ‘orbit’ over these last few weeks that she has over the last few years. She doesn’t need my help to do her home schooling, she is quite an independent student. Instead, she is just close enough to make sure that both of us are safe.
A sense of safety is exactly what all kids need during a time of pandemic.
It is difficult for children to make sense of what’s happening in a new situation, dependent on their personal levels of vulnerability, experience, suggestibility, and brain maturation.
Anxiety or emotional agitation builds when kids are not able to gauge or understand the risk that the COVID-19 outbreak could mean to their lives. And children who have previously experienced disruption and trauma in their lives are especially sensitive to any uneasiness in a family setting. Even if they cannot express it, they are wondering what will happen to them, or their friends, or their parents, or others they love. Simply put, they need to understand that their ‘people’ are going to be okay.
What can you do to help your kid cope?
Maintain normalcy as much as possible
Consistency is key… so stick to your usual household routines and schedules. Keeping to your family routines conveys to your kids that everything is going to be OK. Sitting around without a plan for the day on a regular basis only serves to escalate anxiety. Build in an exercise schedule, get to bed on time and practice good sleep hygiene, and keep your family meals as an anchor to your day.
Model and communicate calmness
Kids are incredibly sensitive to the behavior of others. If the adults in the house are acting and behaving strangely… the kids are on edge. If the adults are behaving calmly, the kids are receiving the clear message that there is no need to panic or worry. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the most powerful form of communication to your kids is your own behavior. In a nutshell, parents taking care of kids need to find a way to manage their own reactions and model emotional balance.
Limit and monitor news/media exposure
Limiting the exposure your kids have to news cycles can help them regulate anxiety. This means limiting your exposure as well! Of course, the younger the child, the greater their need for limited exposure to news, but limiting and monitoring for older kids is important as well. There is only so much they can manage before they are overloaded… that goes for both kids and parents.
Learn how to get accurate facts and share them appropriately
Be proactive in talking about facts. It is critically important that both you and your children get your news about COVID-19 from reliable, local sources. When you talk with your kids, make sure that you match your information to their developmental age and comprehension levels. And of course, remember, that no matter their age everyone needs basic reassurance that both they and their people are going to be okay.
Talk to your kids about what they are hearing
Ask your kids what they have heard, and what they have noticed about others who are talking about COVID-19. Listen to your kid’s questions about COVID-19. You might be surprised what they have picked up from overhearing comments from you, or from other family, friends, the TV, or the internet. Truthfully, all of us are on the receiving end for massive overload of both information and misinformation about COVID-19.
As the adults, it is our job to make sure that our kids know we are interested in hearing their thoughts. Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Building these bridges of communication makes it easier for them to approach you with any confusion or worry they might have.
Make sure that you validate their efforts to communicate
It is critically important to listen carefully to both our kid’s emotional experiences and their perspective. Validation is a deep form of listening that powerfully allows a kid to feel understood and respected. Validating is not agreeing with what a kid is thinking; instead it is hearing them out and helping them to identify what they are feeling.
When listening to a kid, be careful not to tease them, or dismiss their thoughts or feelings. Kids need a listener so they can process their own emotional reactions, and to help them to understand the reactions they are seeing in others. Invalidation can disrupt a kid’s ability to make sense of their experience, which in turn can contribute to internal confusion. Additionally, kids who are not heard effectively by the adults in their lives can develop a deafness to their own inner dialogue. Finally, invalidating kids can diminish or even rupture your relationship, and entrench a kid’s sense of self doubt and self dislike.
They are relying on you to help them make sense of experiences that are new or unusual to them. When you listen deeply, you are reassuring your kids that what they are feeling is common and allowing them to both release tension and stay connected.
Help kids learn how to sit with anxiety
Rather than avoiding anxiety, it is best for all of us to learn to normalize the experience of anxiety and become curious about our worry thoughts. Expressing thoughts and worries allows for confusion to not become internalized and putting anxiety related feelings into words speeds up the processing of both the emotions and experiences.
So instead of trying to help your kids ‘forget’ about their feelings, help them notice and verbalize the experience of anxiety inside of their bodies. To do this, encourage them to sit with and experience their anxiety. It helps kids to understand that feelings are like waves that will pass. Oddly enough, sometimes it even helps them to literally name their anxiety… silly names like Howard or Babette! This might feel uncomfortable or awkward at first, but with practice kids can learn that while sitting with anxiety can be hard, it is doable. They will learn that even if the focus temporarily increases their feelings, the feelings subside, and they can come out the other end.
Don’t get caught up in excessive reassurance
Kids with an emerging anxiety disorder may repeatedly ask their adults for words or gestures of reassurance. Excessive reassurance may be in the form of repeated requests for gestures of comfort, repeated questions to verify safety, repeated requests for checking something, or asking you to repeat facts of the situation to reassure them.
Providing repeated reassurance might feel like it helps in the moment, but excessive reassurance more often serves to reinforce and increase anxiety. So, watch out for the trap of excessive reassurance, and instead provide positive and constructive feedback.
Monitor for disordered anxiety
In some cases, normal and understandable anxiety can develop into a disorder that can cause life-long problems. Struggles with handwashing, counting, checking, or other compulsive rituals might increase; particularly as during this time of global anxiety kids are hearing repeated recommendations for handwashing as part of safety measures. If you are concerned that one of your kids might be starting to show some obsessive-compulsive symptoms, or that they are becoming increasingly fixated on certain things, it will be important to monitor that the precautions they are taking are not becoming repetitive or compulsive rituals. If symptoms of an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive traits become more obvious, or if they start to interfere with a child’s daily functioning, make sure that you reach out as soon as possible to consult with a therapist.
Decide what information should be shared
When you are talking with younger kids, keep any information you give simple, short, and concrete. Let them know that this virus is a new one that the world didn’t know about before and tell them that people want to watch it closely to prevent it from spreading further, and to understand it better. It will be important to reassure them that the likelihood of getting really sick from COVID-19 is quite low and remind them that your family is following the guidelines to stay healthy.
When you are talking with older kids, take the time help them to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information sources and show them how to educate themselves. Point them in the direction of scientifically authentic and reliable new sources. It is important to remind them that different updates may not be complete or show the big picture. Of course, even the older kids should be reassured that the chances of getting infected are low for most people, more so if simple precautions are practiced.
Talking about deaths from COVID-19
Kids have also likely heard news about deaths from COVID-19. For older children who are more likely to understand the concept of death and its finality, you can teach them that most people do not die from this disease. In fact, most people get better. In Alberta, the current rate of death from COVID-19 it is less than 3%*.
Regardless of the age of your child, if your child asks specific questions about deaths from COVID-19, do not avoid answering them. Instead, ask them what they think and know, and explain facts to your child in a simple way that matches their age and developmental level.
Remember to take care of your kid’s parents too
Yes, that means taking care of yourself. Trying to figure out and handle life in these unprecedented times is nearly impossible on our own. Taking care of our own needs is vital when it comes to meeting the needs of our kids. Simply put, an unregulated child cannot be regulated by an unregulated adult.
Even though the social distancing norm in our lives might make it harder to connect, the most powerful buffer in times of stress is social connectedness. We must find new ways to stay physically distant but emotionally close to each other. Thankfully, we have countless new ways to stay connected – in fact I read stories to my three-year-old grandson last week while he was eating breakfast, and it was all done by Skype!
So, families – stay close to each other, reach out for your own supports, and look forward to the stories that will be told to your grandchildren about how you weathered the great pandemic of 2020.