Parenting through a Pandemic: How to help your child manage his or her anxiety

Many parents have heard somatic complaints from their children: headaches, stomach aches and trouble sleeping are a few. If a quick consultation with your medical doctor finds everything appears normal with their physical health, you may stop to ask yourself “Is this anxiety?”

Children display anxiety differently than adults. Restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and sleep difficulties are common markers of anxiety for adults. In children, these symptoms may extend to anger outbursts, crying, moodswings, reassurance seeking, school avoidance and somatic complaints (i.e. stomach and/or headaches).

Regardless if your child meets the clinical threshold for anxiety, the pandemic has left its mark on everyone, including children. What can parents do to help children make sense of this? How can parents model healthy coping?

  1. Remember a year ago when we were setting limits and closely monitoring online time, making sure it balanced out with in-person social interactions? Throw the old guidelines out for the time being and encourage online connections. Get your child involved with age appropriate social groups. Continue to monitor when necessary and set up appropriate guidelines using parental controls. Connect with other family members, friends, as well as classmates if possible. Remember, although your child gets some online time with school, it’s likely not filling their need for unstructured socializing/play, which is important for their growth and development.It’s okay to still have limits on screen time, but these limits may look different right now than when we aren’t in a global pandemic.
  2. Stick to a routine. Routines help kids feel safe because they know what to expect, which is especially important during times of uncertainty. It is important to wake up and go to bed at the same time, eat at the same time, get dressed, brush your teeth and take a bath. Good body hygiene is the first step to good mental hygiene. Disconnect from electronics at least an hour or two before bedtime. Read a good old fashioned bedtime story instead or try meditation. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but the more consistent routines can be, the better. Be clear about expectations and talk to your kids about rewards for sticking to routines and consequences for not (get their input on what these rewards and consequences should be!).
  3. Listen to your kids and validate their feelings. Take this time to teach them that having emotions is okay. We all have them. Find a way to help them express this anxiety, frustration or sadness in healthy ways. Talk about it, draw, journal or make a dance out of it. This might mean practicing and modeling your own distress tolerance skills. It’s hard to see our kids struggle without trying to immediately fix it, but we can’t fix the pandemic. Just be there, ask questions, and communicate understanding. Then model to them that we can still move on! We still have to do activities of daily living even when we feel big emotions. It’s a balancing act of feeling the feelings and still doing what needs to be done. Practice being in the moment with mindfulness and take it one step at a time when needed.

Each child has their own experience with the pandemic. Despite the emotions or behaviors your child might be displaying during this difficult time, remember that kids are amazingly resilient! And parents, you are not expected to be perfect. Model some good coping skills like connecting online for socializing, creating and maintaining a good routine, and talking about feelings with your kids. You might be surprised at what you can learn from them!