Author : S C Anbarasu, Senior Clinical Psychologist
All children have fears. Most simply complain about their worries and move on. However, there are some whose fears get more intense over time instead of naturally fading away.
The World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Children’s responses to such stressful events are unique and varied. Children who are privy to information from a variety of sources can be disappointed, confused, angry, or sad. Some children may be irritable or clingy, while some may regress, and demand more attention, or have difficulty with eating, sleep or self-care.
Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, it is a given that everyday life will change, and will continue to change for most people. Children may have difficulties adjusting to their routines (e.g., schools and child care closures, home confinement and social distancing), which may interfere with their sense of structure, predictability, and security.
To help your child cope with his/her anxiety around the current COVID-19 situation, the following recommendations can be considered:
- Validating your child’s feelings is important.
For example, if someone in the family is unwell, acknowledging and validating your child’s concerns, in addition to reassuring them that the affected family member has the best available medical care to manage the illness, is helpful. When you talk to your child or teen, it’s also important to use words and examples that are developmentally appropriate for their maturity.
- It is important to help your child maintain a sense of structure if they are needed to be away from school.
Take a break from social media and the news. Use this time to play with your kids and build an even better parent-child relationship. When it’s safe for them to return to school, be patient while helping them return to their routine so that they can gradually readjust to their normal, everyday activities.
- Be a source of stability for your children.
Children are more likely to be intolerant of uncertainties. This means that children tend to view uncertainties as harmful or overwhelming. As such, they may react with fear and avoid preparing for the unknown. It would be helpful if parents focus on the current facts about the situation instead of predicting. Predicting and guessing can become a problem at times, as this may cause anxiety to escalate. If you don’t have an answer to your child’s questions, don’t feel like you’re obliged to play the all-knowing parent. Say you don’t know but you’ll try to find out. While teens and young adults are old enough to understand the risks that COVID-19 bring, be careful when talking to others when in the presence of preschool kids as they may potentially scare themselves with misguided misinterpretations.
- Children learn better from modeling behaviour.
Demonstrating how to cough or sneeze into a tissue and discarding it properly, trying to keep your hands from touching your face, and washing your hands regularly can foster good basic hygiene. When you see your kids practicing good hygiene praise them for it.
- In stressful times, when children feel helpless, there’s a tendency to blame others.
If they are seen to blame a certain group of people, for example those who have recently travelled, listen to them and address such concerns in your conversation. Importantly, do ensure that you do not reinforce negative stereotypes in your own conversations or behaviours.
- Foster a home environment that allows your children to express their feelings.
In some families, when one child in the family has a severe mental illness, the other children can sometimes feel left out. Parents need to bear in mind that this can be a hard time for all children in the family; hence, it’s important to let all siblings have the latitude to express their feelings and feel like they can retreat to safe spaces in your home environment.
- Children are capable of picking up on their parents’ emotional energy.
In dealing with the situation, it’s also important that you acknowledge and manage your own anxieties so as not to amplify your child’s fears. This is even more important for parents of children who are generally anxious or have significant worries about something.
This current situation of COVID-19 is challenging and new to most of us. As there is no template to rely on to approach this crisis, we’re in the dark about how long this situation will last or when we will be able to return to life as we knew it. Nevertheless, parents and others can help children navigate these uncertain moments by equipping them with the right resources and instilling resilience in them.