The closure of schools have created additional stress for medical employees, and their children as well as they see their parent(s) go to the hospital and risk exposure. For some children, this is a very uncertain and anxious time. The Michael R. Boh Center for Child Development shares behavioral traits to look for in your child when they are experiencing anxiety and strategies to support them.
What behaviors should I watch for in my child?
Children age 2 through preschool experiencing anxiety may display excessive clinging, cowering or hiding in a corner, withdrawal from activities, regression with bed wetting and thumb sucking. They may also display repetitive play.
School-age children tend to report stomach aches, nightmares, headaches, and may exhibit behavior changes. For example, a typically withdrawn and passive child may start to act out more, whereas a typically uninhibited child may become withdrawn.
Children in early adolescence tend to report more physical stress, such as nausea, headaches, sleep disturbance, and crying spells.
Adolescent children also report physical stress, but may also engage in more risk-taking behaviors.
How can you harness past experiences to support your child during COVID-19?
Parents, think about a stressful time your family has gone through. How did you get through it? What coping strategies did you and your family use? If your child is able to understand the conversation, remind your child of the stressful or difficult time and how you got through it. Remind your child of the coping strategies and how things turned out okay, or maybe even better. Discuss the lessons that were learned from that challenging time.
How can you take the lessons learned from your past and apply it to this challenging time?
For adolescent children, this is a great way to discuss life lessons and that when people are challenged, it is our choices and coping strategies that get us through it.
If your child is displaying any of the anxious behaviors listed above, coach your child to name the bodily sensations they are experiencing. Have them identify the bodily response—is it a stomach ache, headache, muscle tension, racing thoughts, etc? Then, help them to identify the emotion—are they scared, anxious, and/or sad? It may be very difficult for your child to label the emotion. You can list possible choices of emotions and see if they pick one, or two. Whether or not they can label the emotion, it is important to discuss and develop a list of coping strategies.
For example, they can take a deep breath and count to 3 or 5, they can call a friend or family member, they can write about how they feel, they can draw, and you can also practice progressive muscle relationtion with your child.
How can you address the uncertainties of COVID-19 with your child?
If your child(ren) are worried about their parents safety at the hospital, explain to your child all the precautions you take to stay safe. Explain how you wear protective clothing, gloves, and a face mask. Show them how you practice good hygiene and how you wash your hands. For preschool and school age children, explain that you have leaders and supervisors who are like teachers and help protect you. Your “teachers” develop protocols and safety rules to ensure you are safe. Thus, the physician has someone looking out for them at work, just like how a child has a teacher looking out for them at school.
How can you create structure to ease your child’s anxiety?
The uncertainty of the time, the lack of control, and the decreased structure of the day due to the school and community closures, adds to the sense of anxiety and panic. Parents are encouraged to provide reassurance, stability, and comfort. Create a schedule for the day that closely follows the school schedule. Also, maintain healthy eating habits and sleep schedules. Keeping a routine helps re-build a sense of normalcy and control.
It is also helfpul for children to re-establish a sense of control over little things. Parents can help their child re-gain control by making them feel like they are part of the team to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Parents should provide children with responsibilities/chores such as cleaning their toys, tidying their bedroom, cleaning their sink in the bathroom, etc. Give the children developmentally appropriate tasks to help keep the home sanitary and clean. This is a great time for teenagers to learn to do laundry and help with meal preparation.
What are other steps you can take to support your child’s anxiety?
First, limit the exposure to the COVID-19 news. Repeated exposure to the news can increase feelings of anxiety. Also, children look to their parents to see how to respond. Be mindful of what you are saying and doing in front of your children, and model good coping strategies. Be aware of the verbal and non-verbal message you are sending your children. Model positive self-talk, deep breathing, and self-care. At this time, the providers working hard to contain the virus and treat patients, need to focus on self-care. Practice a healthy diet and get sleep when you can. Be aware of the signs of burn out and reach out to colleagues, friends, and family for support.