The coronavirus pandemic has been a long, stressful time for most, but especially for young children. While we are hopefully moving in the right direction about transitioning toward more pre-pandemic routines and activities, there is still much cause for anxiety in children.
Uncertainty, fear and staying at home has made changed routines difficult. Children don’t always understand why they can’t go to school, see their families, or play with their friends. Remote learning, while a way to attempt to keep children current with their studies, can be another cause of anxiety. For children with special needs, the disruptions are amplified. Services that have moved to teletherapy are additionally challenging, and maintaining a calm, albeit new routine is difficult as well.
We are sharing the following information from Boston Children’s Hospital:
Some kids hide in their rooms. Others turn their cameras off during remote learning and don’t want to talk to anyone. Still others feel panicky when they do go out in public. As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, its effects on our mental health may have become increasingly noticeable — especially in children and teens. “My daughter used to be really energetic and motivated,” says one mother. “She was happy and light. Now, she’s just folded into herself.”
She’s not alone. Families are reporting troubling changes in their children’s emotional well-being, particularly when it comes to anxiety. To better understand the problem — and learn what parents can do to help — we spoke with Allison Scobie-Carroll, senior director of social work and family services at Boston Children’s Hospital.
A lot of kids seem to be experiencing increased anxiety. Why?
Like adults, children and teens are missing being around their peers. They need those relationships not just to feel good, but also to practice social skills. Now that we’ve been in this for a year, we’re seeing the effects of what happens when children are separated from regular social interaction for long periods of time.
What are some aspects of the pandemic that can cause or worsen anxiety in kids?
Our “new normal” means that the way we interact with each other has changed. Things that once came naturally — like just being out in the world — are now fraught with concern. If a child is already prone to anxiety, the rejection they might feel when someone steers away from them may be amplified, even if that person is simply trying to physically distance.
Then add in masks, which can contribute to anxiety in a couple of different ways. First, they block our ability to read social cues, like smiles or frowns. They can also impede the ability to practice deep breathing, which is a natural way to counteract anxiety and for some people contributes to feelings of claustrophobia. That said, masks are critical to protecting against COVID-19, and most kids have adapted well to wearing them.
Can kids “catch” anxiety from their parents and other adults?
Collectively, we’re transmitting a lot of worry and kids absolutely pick up on that, particularly if they’re already sensitive or prone to anxiety.
What can parents do to help their children cope with anxiety?
The most important thing you can do is to let your child know you’ll be there for them — it’s so simple but so fundamental. You can also try the following tips:
Listen to them. Children experience and navigate the world through a different lens than adults. Their worries need not be rational or fact based, but they are still valid.
Teach them coping skills. Regular exercise, turning off screens at least an hour before bed, and using apps like Calm to practice deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can all help kids (and parents) ease anxiety.
Schedule safe playdates. There’s no substitute for being around friends — kids relate to each other in ways that adults just can’t. Ask your child if they’d be interested in seeing the friends in their circle, as long as they follow safe precautions like wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.
Connect with other parents. The pressures of life right now might make you feel something is very wrong with your child — but many families are experiencing the same thing. Situational anxiety can be a natural response to chronic stress. It can help to know that it’s not a failure on your part and that you aren’t alone.
Know your child. A lot of kids and adults are experiencing panic attacks, having night terrors, or developing phobias for the first time during the pandemic. If you’re concerned about new or worsened symptoms in your child, contact your primary care provider for help.
The Mayo Clinic offers additional suggestions for helping children with special needs during this time:
Kids with special needs and their parents may feel anxious, just like any family. At the same time, families with complex needs have a hidden strength: They’re resilient, and they know what it takes to adapt to the unexpected. If you’re in this situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, know that you can navigate uncertain times successfully. Here are some suggestions:
Rely on your experience
Think back to strategies that have worked for you in the past. Go back to the basics. This might include:
- Keeping a consistent schedule for meals, medications, exercise and bedtime
- Planning gradual transitions that suit your child’s pace
- Using visual cues to illustrate schedules and activities
- Scheduling quiet time to reduce sensory input and de-stress
- Offering warm praise for a job well done
- Promptly correcting or redirecting negative behavior and offering a chance for a redo
Help your child feel in control
Explain that everyone is working together to keep the virus that causes COVID-19 from spreading and making people sick. This is why some schools and playgrounds may be closed. Likewise, having a playdate or going to a friend’s house may not be an option. Explain that kids can be a big help, too, by following such practices as:
- Washing hands with soap and water often, or clean hands with sanitizer
- Sneezing or coughing into a tissue or a bent elbow, not hands, and throwing used tissues in the trash
- Keeping 6 feet of space between themselves and others outside of the house
- Waving or giving smiles instead of hugs, fist bumps and high-fives
- Wearing a face mask at grocery stores and in other public places
Revisit your child’s treatment plan and care needs
If your child has a treatment plan — which might include things such as a list of prescription medicines, therapy instructions, and emergency and medical contacts — make sure that it’s up to date and accessible. It may help to have it in the form of an electronic document that you can easily share. In addition:
- Identify potential alternative caregivers, in case you or your child’s regular caregiver is sick.
- Gather specific instructions for caregivers, including information on your child’s medical conditions, doctors and therapists, daily schedules, and preferences.
- Visit websites of support groups and organizations you’ve typically relied on in the past.
During the pandemic, everyone feels added stress. But it’s possible to manage stress so it doesn’t get overwhelming. Consider these tips:
- Take breaks.Remember to make some time for yourself. Wake up a few minutes early to gather your thoughts. Pause a minute or two before bedtime to do some stretches or deep breathing. Take time to gather your mental reserves.
- Limit access to the news.Being informed is good. But information overload can heighten anxiety about the disease.
- Stay healthy.Even though schedules feel off, prioritize getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals and staying active. These fundamentals will reduce stress and improve everyone’s state of mind.
- Connect with loved ones.Stay connected with grandparents and friends via phone or video chat. Or write a letter. Maintaining your family’s support network is a key coping strategy.
- Have some fun.Share relaxed moments with your family, when you’re not focusing on work or school. Play games with your kids, go for sunset walks, do cooking projects together and enjoy home movie nights.
It’s a challenging time for sure. Children experience their own anxiety, but also feed off the environment within their home. To handle both yours and your child’s anxiety it is important to find ways to enjoy the time together with your family. The weather is changing; get outside and play, take a walk, create a scavenger hunt…just be together and soak up some fresh air. We’ll all get through this together.
Stay safe and be well.
Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. It is not an attempt to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Always consult your child’s pediatrician with any specific medical questions. MKSA is also available to answer questions about child development. Contact us at 516-731-5588 or www.mksallc.com.