Eight ways to support your anxious child during the coronavirus pandemic
This article was last updated on 29 April 2020.
Coronavirus has caused everyone’s lives to change and the future feels very uncertain. Both change and uncertainty can be big causes of anxiety. So it’s not surprising that worry is a feature of our lives at present. Here are eight simple steps, based on research into childhood anxiety, to help you to support your child - whatever their age - at this difficult time.
1. Recognise their anxiety
Everyone gets anxious sometimes. We know that children tend to worry about different things at different ages, and their anxiety is influenced by what’s going on in the world around them. Every child is different, but you are the experts at recognising when your child is anxious. Do they want to stay closer to you than usual? Do they ask lots of questions and seek reassurance? Do they get tearful, or cross and grumpy? Do they talk about ‘feeling ill’, and having headaches or tummy aches?
Recognising that your child is anxious is the first step to helping them.
2. Create a space to talk
Let your child know you are available to talk, but don’t force them to. Children and young people often find it easier to talk while doing another activity, like drawing, doing some baking, or playing a video game together. Avoid big conversations about worries at bedtime, which is a time for calming down and going to sleep. But if this happens, encourage them to make a note (maybe in a ‘worry box’) so you can both talk about it the next day. Then move on to a calming and distracting activity to help them settle for the night.
3. Model a calm response
Parents and carers get anxious too! We worry about the impact of coronavirus on the world and on those we love. We know that children are good at noticing when others around them are anxious, and will watch the behaviour of others to work out whether they should be anxious themselves.
Even if you’re feeling anxious on the inside, you can help your child by trying to model a calm response on the outside. This will help to reassure them that things might be difficult, but they are manageable.
4. Be curious and listen
There is a real pull in parents to want to protect our children from difficult feelings - to tell them there is no need to worry, and to jump into finding solutions to make them feel better. But first, spend time listening to your child, asking questions, and being interested in how things are from their perspective. Be accepting of their worry, anger and sadness about how things are at present. Let them know that their thoughts and feelings are understandable. Explain that, although the physical feelings we get in our bodies when we are anxious can be unpleasant, they are normal.
5. Think about thinking
A worry is a thought, not necessarily a fact. Listen to your child and try to understand exactly what they are worried about. What is the bad thing they worry might happen? How likely is it to happen, and what would it mean if it did? Would it help to explore alternative ways of looking at things, which might help them to draw less anxiety-provoking conclusions?
There are now some great resources for different ages to help with this, like this free book about Coronavirus.
6. Manage external stresses
Constant exposure to news and social media, and changes to routines, increase anxiety in children. Keep an eye on what your child is reading, watching and listening to. Be aware if they hear news reports which they might find upsetting. Try to keep to a routine, with activities across the day (e.g. schoolwork, exercise, relaxing, keeping in touch with friends, sleep). Don’t add to the pressure if they seem overwhelmed. Instead, emphasise the importance of being kind and looking after themselves.
7. Emphasise their strengths
Anxiety in children is reduced if they believe they have the ability to cope with difficulties. You can help by showing your child that you are confident they can manage. Help them to problem-solve where there are solutions to be found. But also help them learn to manage worries that you can’t do much about (e.g. by distracting themselves in fun and absorbing activities).
Emphasise that things will eventually get back to normal.
8. Look after yourself
These times are stressful for everyone, and you need to look after yourself so you can best look after your children. Think how you might be able to apply the above steps to yourself. But also, think about how you can get support from those around you. By supporting one another, we are stronger and can get through this together.
By Vicki Curry, who is director of training programmes for child mental health professionals at the Anna Freud Centre. She also works as a consultant clinical psychologist for Islington CAMHS and Whittington Health NHS Trust.