The outbreak of a virus like covid-19 can lead to many of us feeling anxious, stressed and overwhelmed. At this time, it’s important to be mindful of the information that our children are receiving and about what we’re modelling to them.
Currently, children may be exposed to frightening images and statistics in the media, adults speaking anxiously about coronavirus, and other children at school sharing their fears, all of which can heighten their distress. With all of this it’s easy to see why our children might start panicking and looking to us for reassurance.
Therefore, it important to consider how we respond to our own anxiety and stress around coronavirus in order to best support our children’s mental health.
Signs of coronavirus stress or anxiety in children
Children are generally very resilient, and many won’t be emotionally affected by coronavirus in any significant or ongoing way. Given the unique nature of this situation though, it will be important that you observe your children and that you’re aware of potential signs of distress that may persist, including:
- Fear and worry about their own health or the health of loved ones;
- Increased crying or irritation in younger children;
- Increased irritability or ‘acting out’ behaviours in adolescents;
- Declining school performance or avoiding school;
- Changes in sleep and/or eating patterns;
- Avoidance of activities they enjoyed in the past;
- Extended periods of silence and/or withdrawal.
Tips to manage your child’s coronavirus anxiety
Strategies will vary depending on the age and personality of each child, however, some simple tips include:
Communicate with your child about the virus and stick to the facts
- Not talking about something can make children worry more. Most kids will have heard about coronavirus or seen people wearing face mask, so don’t avoid the topic and take time to talk to your child and address any of their questions or worries.
- Your child might be exposed to exaggerated content through the media so it’s important to keep the lines of communication open so that they can come to you for the facts.
- When talking about coronavirus, use simple age appropriate terms and avoid using language that exaggerates any aspect of the pandemic (such as transmission, symptoms, or fatality rate).
- Don’t volunteer too much information because that can be overwhelming, so instead answer your child’s questions and be guided by them in what they want to discuss. Ask them what they’ve heard and how they feel. Let them ask as many questions as they want.
- It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers, it’s being available to your child that matters so just be open and honest as best as you can.
- Provide reassurance that they are safe, how unlikely it is that they’ll catch it and that kids seem to have mild symptoms. Empower them by telling them about what they can do to stay safe and build their confidence in our medical supports.
- Avoid talking to your children about coronavirus when you’re feeling most anxious about it, and take time to calm yourself down before discussing it.
Lead by example
- Your children are always watching you so that they know how to respond. This is how they learn to manage their own emotions. To help keep children calm and to help them respond effectively to this situation, it’s important that we avoid acting in a panicked way in front of them. Speak slowly and calmly when talking about covid-19 and relax your body and facial expressions. Your children will follow your lead.
- Talk about how you’re both feeling and demonstrate ways of managing your emotions. Talking about our feelings helps children understand their own emotions. You can validate their fear by letting them know that you are also feeling nervous. You can then follow it up by showing them helpful ways to manage their anxiety, such as: talking about it, breathing slowly, doing something fun with someone you care about, or watching something funny.
Restrict media access
- Avoid watching news items on TV or computer while your children are there.
- Play your own music in the car rather than listening to news or discussion on the radio.
- Monitor your children’s access to the internet.
Fill their brains with non-panicked content
- Talk about things that are happening other than covid-19. It’s not helpful for our brains to be in constant threat or panic mode and we all need some relief from this situation.
- Reduce your conversations about covid-19. After you have discussed the facts with your child, there is no need to continue bringing it up or talking about it as part of each conversation. If they ask about it again, you can re-state the facts, or ask them to re-tell you the facts you have already told them. Teach them to re-assure themselves.
- Try talking to them about their friends and the things they are interested in.
- Routines and predictability are helpful, so continue doing enjoyable things with them like playing together and ensure that they’re continuing to exercise, eat and sleep well.
Should I get help?
Remember that no matter how you or your child feel, it is completely OK and normal. If you or your child are becoming overwhelmed, you can use the services listed below or contact us for more information.
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800, www.kidshelpline.com.au
Parent Line: 1300 1300 52, www.parentline.org.au
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au
Written by Ellise Barnier, Clinical Psychologist Registrar