Supporting Children With Their Anxieties during the Covid-19 Pandemic by Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
There was a recent study done "Home confinement during COVID-19 puts children at risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression, study suggests." This article explains why it is important to recognize anxiety as real and learn how to support your child.
1. Is the Covid-19 pandemic likely to increase anxiety in children? If so, why?
Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to increase anxiety for children who are more vulnerable to stress and have difficulty tolerating and moving through stressors such as those who have experienced early childhood trauma. The fear receptor in the brain becomes more activated to defend and protect rather than to accept and grow. They may exhibit behaviors such as fear of being alone, demanding more attention, show more irritability, and may exhibit aggression and/or appear shut down and internally disorganized.
2. Do children "tune in" to parents' anxiety?
Yes in current brain research, it has been found that we have “mirror neurons.” A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires in our brains, both when a human observes the same action by another and replicates it. Thus, when children witness their parents stressed they will “mimic” or “mirror” that same behavior unconsciously, and act it out.
3. What is most important for adults to understand a child's anxiety level?
Anxiety is an indication, a child is experiencing an overwhelming feeling, thought, and/or sensation, which can be “real or imagined” for them. If children don’t understand their anxiety they can feel hopeless, helpless, and powerless over it, especially if they don’t have the skills to understand it.
They will need patience, kindness, and support from their caregiver who can join in their anxiety, tolerate it with them, and help them move through the feeling hand in hand. This will take repetition, dose by dose, of reassurance, and acknowledgment for the child to return to a state of calm. It’s in a parent's best interest to accept this and trust over time your child will learn to tolerate their anxieties on their own. 4. What's the best therapeutic approach to treating children with anxiety, and why?
It is strongly recommended for parents at this time, to tap into their own natural resources of calming their nervous systems with mindfulness breathing, meditation, taking breaks throughout the day to restore the mind and body, ...and P-A-C-E yourself and your child throughout the day. Order is not important:
P) Be present, patient and playful. Take time during the day to stop and connect with your senses. Find something humorous. This is very important for staying resilient, light, and not "burning out" during this vulnerable time.
A) Accept and understand, you and your child's behavior represents your best efforts. "We are all doing the best that we can." Limits will continue to be set for unsafe situations, and direct behavior by focusing the "teaching on the behavior" and not upon you or your child's core self-esteem. We all want to be loved unconditionally for who we are, not what we do.
C) Stay curious about how you and your children are feeling. Ask open ended questions. "How do you feel about that?" "What do you believe?" "What would you do differently?" "How do you think this problem could be solved?" "Is there another way we can find a solution together?"
E) Have empathy verbally and non verbally. This is a challenging time for everyone, acknowledge you and your child's feelings as valid and be compassionate in order to stay flexible, balanced, and supportive. Learn more about Attachment Parenting Class to learn more about the importance of P-A-C-E, joining with your child's experience and helping your child make sense of their experience:
5. What are some typical ways that parents respond to high anxiety in a child that in the end turn out not to be helpful? Can you give an example or two of what a parent/adult might say or do?
Some typical ways parents respond to high anxiety in a child that in the end turns out not to be helpful is questioning over and over “why is this happening?” or telling a child to “get over it” or “that’s not happening” or “don’t worry about it, you’re fine!” When a parent denies, deflects, and disapproves of their child’s anxieties, unfortunately, the bigger it will get! What we resist will persist. That is brain science. We can’t just push a thought, feeling, or sensation away, well we can try to avoid it, but it will come back over and over until we “address the stress” and “feel it to heal it.” The best medicine is not avoiding, questioning, and denying the anxiety but accepting it as so. It is a natural part of being human, and anxieties will come and go and will pass for children when there is a caregiver sharing and bearing the experience with them. 6. What is the key to making a child relax when facing difficulties? Are any words or phrases especially helpful? Use a lot of phrases such as “we will get through this” and “we can feel these worries together” or “let’s problem solve some ways to help ourselves when we start to feel our anxieties come up” or “let’s make a list of 4 things we can do before we get anxious, and after we experience anxiety to befriend it and give it what it needs” or “let’s be our own best friend if your friend had this anxiety what would you tell them?”
7. Are there any family activities (nature? exercise?) that lower anxiety levels in children?
Family activities that are shareable are more bearable, that shift the mind and body state, can release good endorphins which are very important to calm the nervous system i.e. nature walks, bike riding, playing with animals, water activities, yoga, dancing, make a stress bag, teach deep breathing skills, and provide psychoeducation videos about our brains that support understanding and self-compassion. Children's Mental Health Videos with many activities for Parents and children DIY: HERE