7 Ways to Manage Anxiety in Children During Traumatic Events

Dad talking 1 on 1 with son; Ease Anxiety in Children About COVID-19

Children know their world is different now, which may lead to questions that need to be answered with sensitivity to their developmental level. Here’s some guidance from UnityPoint Health Behavioral Health Consultant Lana Herteen, MA, LMHC with seven healthy ways to calm fears about COVID-19.

Easing Anxiety in Children about COVID-19

Turn off the TV. While it’s important for you to stay informed, news reports are designed for adults. It’s not ideal for young kids to learn information from reporters. They may not even understand the words they hear, but they pick up on the intensity and sound of fear in voices which can cause children to feel anxious. Herteen provides some general guidelines for how to talk to your children about COVID-19.

Children Age 3 to 5

Keep it simple. Young children can understand language such as, “There’s a new germ that can make people very sick.” Then balance your language with a message of hope, emphasizing what we can do to stop the germ – by washing hands even more than usual. When children ask why they’re not going places they’re accustomed to visiting (store, library, play dates, etc.) you can tell them, “It’s how each of us does our part to keep all people safe.” Focus on the positive aspect of a precaution and use “teamwork” language, which is easier for young minds to understand and connect their behavior to helping others. Remember, it’s less about what you say and more about your tone as well as nonverbal behavior that will either calm concerns or fuel fear.

Children in Elementary School

Elementary age kids represent a wide range of functioning, so parents need to adapt messaging accordingly. It’s important to offer enough information to satisfy the child’s need for understanding while leaving out the graphic details. For example, you can explain changing daily behavior – to keep all people safe – then pivot with suggesting an alternative idea, “It’s not safe to visit grandma and grandpa right now, how about writing them letters? I bet they’d love receiving mail from you!” Make it fun for them to fill their time in positive, constructive activities that make them a part of the solution.

Children in Middle School

Adults should aim to be a kids’ primary source of trusted information. That’s tricky given most middle school-aged kids have access to information via social media. It’s important to practice “screen hygiene,” meaning setting and enforcing limits to social media. Less screen time opens opportunity for in-person connection. When you demonstrate you want to hear what kids have to say, it invites a positive connection serving to inform adults about what kids need – both for information and emotional support. You might begin by asking, “Some kids are kind of worried about this Coronavirus stuff, what do you think about it?” or “I wonder how kids are managing to stay busy, any good ideas you’ve heard about?” The hardest part is to pause after asking a question to allow time for your teen to think through their thoughts and feelings. Resist the urge to jump in prematurely to tell kids your opinion. If you find your teen isn’t receptive to talking when you first ask, check in again later. Timing can make a big difference and they may be in a more receptive mood later.

7 Strategies to Help Reduce Anxiety and Stress in Children Coping with Change

  1. Keep a daily schedule. Post it on the refrigerator or somewhere for everyone in the house to see. Structure and consistency have a calming effect. Knowing what’s going to happen next can reduce anxiety.
  2. Involve kids in making plans. Adults and children of all ages have a normal need for healthy control. Give kids two or three dinner options and let them decide what the family will eat, then let them help follow a recipe. Older kids might enjoy being empowered to lead the family in a yoga session – even if it ends with minimal stretching and everyone laughing, mission accomplished!
  3. Check in 1:1. Allow kids private time with you to ask questions and share worries. Adults don’t have to have all the answers. It’s OK to just acknowledge stress in kids and offer reassurance that doctors and scientists are figuring things out. Simply connecting on a meaningful level can give kids what they need to feel emotionally supported.
  4. Spark creativity. Urge kids to try something new – bake a cake, follow a painting tutorial, design a board game of their own with a theme of their choice. When you give kids permission and encouragement to “think outside the box” they can really surprise us.
  5. Go outside. Never underestimate the value of getting fresh air and moving our bodies. While everyone is limited to physical contact with people outside the household, that doesn’t mean you can’t go out for a walk around the block. Experiencing nature is good for the body and mind.
  6. Cut each other slack. When your 4th grader is melting down over not being able to find her sock, recognize it as a stress reaction and label it to facilitate understanding, “You are feeling stress. After we find your sock, how about cuddling up with a good book?” You can enjoy some calm time together and if you both fall asleep; well you got a much-needed nap.
  7. Don’t forget to laugh. COVID-19 is a serious illness but it doesn’t mean you can’t laugh a little. Humor can relieve tension and bring people together. Let kids read jokes to the family or play a silly game of charades. Letting kids see your goofy side can get the laughs rolling.

Ultimately, parents know their children best. If your child demonstrates changes that are out of character for him/her, these may be signs they’re stressed and would benefit from professional guidance. Contact your child's doctor to learn where they recommend you seek mental health support for your child.

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