How To Ease Children’s Anxiety About COVID-19

By Dawn O’Malley, Psy. D. 

March 25, 2020

COVID-19 has changed our lives in ways we never would have imagined. Discussions about the virus dominate the news. Many schools and businesses are closed or running remotely. Sports events, concerts and movie theater showings are canceled. So, it’s not surprising that many of us are feeling more stressed and anxious these days.

Kids, too, may be feeling worried — especially if they already have an anxiety disorder. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help our kids cope. But first, parents and other caregivers must ease their own concerns.

Children take their cues from the adults who care for them. If you’re anxious, then it’s very hard to calm your kids. If you’re more relaxed, then it’s easier to soothe their fears.

So, here are a few steps you can follow to ease COVID-19 anxiety for yourself and your kids.

Step 1: Get The Facts
As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” In any situation, one way to reduce stress is to know the facts. With COVID-19, though, it seems like information is everywhere. What we know about this new virus changes quickly, too. So, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not.

To find the facts about COVID-19 and not be overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to stick with just one or two trusted resources. Choose well-respected national medical groups like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Or, use other resources you already know and trust — like your doctor’s office website.

Facts often can help reduce stress, especially for children with anxiety disorders. If your child is fearful of sickness, for example, you can remind them that the reason people are staying home is to stop the virus from making people sick.

Step 2: Establish A Routine
COVID-19 is disrupting our daily lives in a lot of ways. Kids may be going to school online, for example, while parents work from home.

Although the amount of impact is different for each person, everyone is still affected to one degree or another. Creating a daily family routine can help adults and children alike regain a new sense of “normal.”

One way to do this is by structuring your children’s day as close as possible to what it was before COVID-19. For example, have them:

Wake up, get dressed and eat breakfast at the same time they did when going to school.
Go to a non-distracting area of your home to work on school assignments during the hours they usually would be in school.
​Copy the school schedule by switching activities every 30-40 minutes or so. At “lunchtime,” eat lunch together.

Step 3: Engage In Self-Care
It’s always important for kids to get enough sleep, eat healthy food and engage in physical exercise. During times of anxiety, these self-care activities become even more essential.

You may want to think about the types of activities that relax your child when they experience other stressful events. What do you do to relieve fears at the beginning of a school year, for example? Build those same soothing activities, as well as self-care actions, into your family routine.

Step 4: Stay Connected
“Social distancing” measures are meant to keep people healthy. However, children may be sad or even mad about needing to limit their in-person interactions with friends and family.

To keep kids from feeling alone, help them stay connected with others in new ways. Use technology like Skype, Zoom, Facetime or other apps to set up “virtual playdates.” Let friends play a game or eat together. Go on a neighborhood web page and let kids shop online for groceries for an elderly neighbor. Or, just set up regular times for your children to talk with their friends on the phone.

The same holds for adults, as well. Meet virtually with business groups, friends or family regularly. Don’t let physical distancing keep you away from your social support networks.

Step 5: Focus On The Positive
Children with anxiety often perceive threatening situations to be more of a danger than they really are, and it takes longer for their bodies’ stress response to “turn off.” But reassurance from parents can go a long way toward calming them. Let kids know that even though there’s still much to learn about COVID-19, it’s up to the adults to figure it out, and they don’t need to worry. Stay positive. Talk about all the things people are doing together to help each other and stay healthy.

It’s a conversation you may need to have many times over the coming days. But one of the best ways to reduce anxiety is simply to make time to talk.

Dawn O’Malley, Psy. D., is a licensed psychologist and a Peer Advisor at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. She has spent more than 25 years working with children and families, with specialized expertise in trauma therapies. She has designed and implemented trauma-informed programs for both residential and community-based agencies. She has served as the Clinical Supervisor for Partnering for Excellence, a state-wide pilot program to improve outcomes for children in state custody diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dawn is a Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching and training on the effects of adverse experiences on the developing brain.

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