How Do I Help My Anxious Child During the Pandemic?

Children who are already anxious are more likely to feel worried and fearful about COVID-19, but parents can make a big difference in helping children feel safe.

Parenting in a Pandemic

I'm constantly making my daughter wash her hands and telling her she can't touch anything outside. The playground is off-limits, and she can't see any of her friends. I'm concerned after this pandemic she will be an anxious germophobe and hypochondriac. How do I make sure that does not happen?

—Parenting in a Pandemic

Dear Parenting,

All children will be affected by this global pandemic, even if we are not sure how until we are well beyond it. But there are some children who will be more vulnerable to experiencing COVID-related anxiety, and the more we help them now, the better off they will be later.

Usually, anxiety means we are over-perceiving threat and our brain is misfiring signals of warning to keep us alert when we don't have to be. But everything is different when you are living through a global pandemic. It may actually be impossible not to feel anxious when this invisible virus is threatening every part of daily life.

The good part of anxiety is that the accompanying vigilance and awareness of potential threat activates us to do things we don't like, but will keep us safe, like staying six feet apart from everyone. And washing our hands. All the time. And making our normally germ-infested children do it too.

But when is it too much anxiety? Like the kind that could turn us and our children into hypochondriac germophobes? The simple answer to your question: you can help your daughter not turn into a hypochondriac germophobe by not being one yourself. The complicated answer to your question: depending on you and your child, it can be a lot of work!

Illustration of a slide with coronavirus germs
Illustration by Emma Darvick

Consider How Your Child Is Wired

Most children will continue to need a lot of reminders to wash their hands and keep personal space because they are typically dirty people who don't care about grabbing their sandwich with dirt-encrusted nails. But for children who are worriers, the idea that a scary virus is lurking out in the world could flip that worry volume in their brain all the way up.

Just like eye color and height are predetermined, some of us are more prone to be anxious because of our DNA. It can be easy to spot anxious temperament in even young children (i.e., having more fears, being less risk-averse, intense separation anxiety). We also know that anxious parents are more likely to have anxious kids, probably through a combination of genetics and social modeling. If you have a child who already shows anxious tendencies, they are more likely to have even more anxiety than other children during this scary time.

Good News: You Matter

The longer we parent, the more likely we are to reach the verdict we may not matter that much. In the case of anxiety, though, research demonstrates without a doubt that parents matter a lot. A recent study found that for children with anxiety, treating only the parents led to the same or better outcomes compared to standard child-focused anxiety treatment. That's the good news.

The bad news is it means it is essential for us to manage our own anxiety, including pandemic worries and fears. You know that whole oxygen mask metaphor? We need to take measures to keep our anxiety in check, if not for ourselves, then for our children. A constant stream of worries, for example, can leave us distracted, irritable, and exhausted, which obviously affects our parenting. Be aware of your anxiety levels, and then do what you need to turn down your volume: meditate, exercise, connect with loved ones, turn off social media, stop reading apocalyptic articles. Especially if you take medication and/or see a therapist for anxiety, this is the time to prioritize mental health treatment to make sure you have that oxygen mask on nice and tight.

Tips for Helping Anxious Kids

Let's be honest—it's really hard right now to talk about much else than the coronavirus. As much as my husband and I reserve our total freak-out conversations for after the kids' bedtime, our lives have changed and of course we have had to explain to the children why they suddenly aren't going to school—or anywhere else.

Our children deserve honesty and transparency, but in a way that does not completely overwhelm their resources. Here are tips specific to helping anxious kids (and anxious grown-ups!):

  • Moderate information overload: We need to be cautious about how much children are exposed to a running commentary about the doom and gloom, and filter the information we give them in a developmentally appropriate manner. They don't need an hourly count of new COVID-19 cases—and frankly, neither do we! Be careful about having the news on in the background, or even your own hand-wringing phone conversations close to eavesdropping little ears.
  • Focus on what we know now rather than trying to predict the future: "Right now, you and I are both safe and healthy. We are doing what we know to do to keep us safe and healthy, and to help other people stay safe."
  • We all feel like our worlds are upside down, so keeping any sense of normalcy provides comfort. You can prioritize what's best for your family, but it could include getting dressed every day, keeping normal bedtime routines, and having the same rules as usual (except for screen time—feel free to throw those out the window for survival!).
  • It's likely your child may be wanting your attention and affection even more than usual, which can be confusing since you are always together now. But when you give those extra squeezes, or hold them close when they burst into tears for no apparent reason, they know they can depend on you, even when everything else they rely on feels shaky.
  • Bring back Mr. Rogers and his message to "look for the helpers." Highlight the positive aspects of this strange experience, including ways communities are uniting, and how acts of kindness remind us all of the generosity of the human spirit. You can take this one step further and figure out ways your child can take action to be helpful, like making pictures for health care workers.

We do not have control over COVID-19 or how it has affected our sense of safety in the world. But what we can do is create that sense of safety in our own homes. What feels like small acts of calm and comfort to us can mean big relief for our children.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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