Fear, uncertainty, and anxiety are bound to be heightened with contagious wide-scale disease outbreaks, mainly when they involve a new, previously unknown disease-causing agent, as with the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) episode. This fear and anxiety can significantly affect people already suffering from anxiety, and repeated news cycles about the spread of Coronavirus do not help this anxiety.
Due to their brain maturation, lack of experience, and inherent suggestibility, teens and children may struggle to understand what’s happening in this situation. A seemingly endless stream of news can feel overwhelming, confusing, and frightening to children and teens. Children are less able to understand and decipher the information about the dangers that a disease outbreak might pose to them, their family members, and their friends. This can cause panic in children. This can be even more difficult if a child/teen has an anxiety disorder or is predisposed to feel more anxious in new or unusual situations.
How a child responds to news of novel Coronavirus may depend on several factors, such as:
- The age of the child.
- The language/comprehension abilities and developmental level of the child.
- The presence, severity, and type of anxiety disorder(s) or other psychiatric conditions.
- Prior history of trauma or severe illness of loved ones or self.
- Occurrence of other recent stressors or significant life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, a significant move, change of school), etc.
A parent’s response to news of the novel Coronavirus would be customized to their situation and the context in which it is occurring.
Here are some tips to help you communicate about Coronavirus with your anxious child or teenager. These tips may not be applicable if your child/teen has a severe or moderate anxiety disorder. In that case, please consult your child’s mental health professional/psychiatrist/pediatrician at the earliest to devise or modify your child/teen’s individualized treatment plan so that it weaves in the recommended precautions (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-
Your behavior is the most potent and effective communication with your child/teen. Children are more sensitive and perceptive to others’ behavior than adults. Your child/teen will be more comfortable if you and the other adults in your household behave calmly. You must be aware of your emotions and reactions to do this. Even if parents don’t express their anxiety, children can sense their parents’ anxiety. You can model calmness for your child/teen by taking a few moments to do mindful breathing pauses throughout the day.
Children can be stressed by significant changes in their daily routines and schedules. This is why it is essential to communicate to them that you are concerned or that there is a crisis. As much as possible, stick to the routines and schedules of your household. Consistency is the key. Anxiety can be reduced if your child/teen goes to school. Teens already struggling with anxiety will find it challenging to sit still and not have a plan for the day. If your child/teen has an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) related to maladaptive perfectionism and needs excessive structuring, you should not add more structure to their lives. In this case, you would need to work with your child’s therapist/psychiatrist to determine the best strategy to navigate this situation, taking into account your child’s unique circumstances.
Listen to your child/teen about their feelings, concerns, fears, and questions regarding Coronavirus. Information about Coronavirus may be sent to children via the internet, television, school, or home. Children may be worried about what the worst might happen to them, their friends, and their loved ones. Ask questions in an open, non-judgmental, and empathic manner. Your child/teen should know you are available and interested in their thoughts and feelings. It will be easier for your child/teen in the future to come to you with their thoughts or feelings. More information about Active Listening can be found in CDC’s ‘Essentials for Parents of Toddlers and Preschoolers.’
Recognize your child’s feelings. You should not dismiss, invalidate or make fun of your child’s feelings. It is normal to feel like this; many people (including children) have similar feelings. Learn more about Validating Your Child/Teen. Many fear that validating their child’s feelings will mean they agree with them, which could lead to increased feelings. While validating someone’s feelings doesn’t mean you agree with or condone their beliefs, it does indicate that you recognize the existence of these feelings and acknowledge that they are part of the human experience. Validating someone’s feelings is powerful because it makes them feel understood. Children need to validate their emotions and talk with teachers/parents. Validation can make a child feel calmer, improve their ability to process emotions, and even cause a breakdown in your long-term relationship with them.
Help Sit With Anxiety:
Your child should practice sitting with the anxiety and feeling it instead of trying to distract or relieve it. Depending on how severe it is, it may be difficult for your child or teenager to sit with the anxiety at first. However, practice will show them that it is possible, that they can ride the waves, and that these feelings are temporary and will not rule their lives. Your child should be able to recognize and express anxiety rather than trying to avoid it. It is easier to process anxiety-related feelings and emotions by telling them in words. It can be helpful to recognize anxiety as a familiar feeling in people all over the globe.
Get the Facts and Move towards the Truth:
You will likely hear about the Coronavirus from your child/teen outside the home. Be bold and ask or discuss it with them. Talk to your child/teen about the Coronavirus. You will need to first learn about coronavirus facts. Ensure you get your points from reliable sources.
If your older child/teen still needs to be in school, guide them to reliable and scientifically valid news sources about Coronavirus. Your older child/teen should know that not all stories are complete and may not show the whole picture. Your child/teen should be informed in a developmentally-appropriate manner about what you know about Coronavirus. If your child/teen is older, you might notify them that the risk of contracting the novel Coronavirus is less than 1000 (as of March 11, 2020). If the chance of contracting the virus is low, your child might ask why it is frequently covered in the media. Your older child/teen should know that this coronavirus virus is new and that countries and people are keen to learn more about it. Young children must receive basic assurances from their parents that they and their loved ones are safe. To illustrate basic facts, you can use role-playing and storytelling with young children. Keep any information you share brief, concrete, and easy to understand for younger children.
Coronavirus can cause death in children. Children older than ten may be more comfortable understanding the concept of death. However, many people get better. No matter what age your child is, ask specific questions about coronavirus deaths. You can ask them about their concerns. Tell your child/teen you are available to help if they have questions or need further information.
Limit Excessive Relief:
Teens and children who feel anxious or have anxiety disorders may ask their parents repeatedly for words or gestures to reassure them. Repeated requests for comfort or repeated questions may result in excessive reassurance. Although you may feel the need to provide relief, which may seem to be helping at that moment or longer term, extreme ease can increase anxiety and reinforce the situation. It is best to avoid excessive reassurance. When your child/teen displays appropriate behavior, you should give them positive feedback. Anxiety disorders can make it difficult for parents to provide positive feedback. Professional help may be helpful to them.
Relaxation Strategies for
Mindfulness-based relaxation strategies, such as breathing techniques and meditation, can help your child/teen feel calmer. You can find more information about mindful breathing techniques at: https://www.seattlechildrens.org/pdf/PE698.pdf, https://www.seattlechildrens.org/pdf/pe727.pdf, and https://www.headspace.com/meditation/kids.
These exercises are more effective when they are practiced frequently. These exercises should not be used as compulsive rituals by a child or teenager with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Mindfulness exercises such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, or mindful eating involve non-judgmental awareness and the practice of being present at the moment.
Make it Educational & Interesting:
The novel Coronavirus deserves seriousness. However, children learn best through stories and games. You may find it helpful to have your child engage in creative learning activities about COVID-19 tailored to their age, developmental level, and anxiety levels. Any activity that involves anxiety should only be undertaken if your child/teen is experiencing moderate or severe anxiety.
For instance, if your older child/teen is learning ratios, proportions, or percentages at school, you may ask them to read up on the numbers of people affected in the US at a reliable source, such as CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in- us.html. Your child/teen can calculate the percentage of affected people compared to the entire population. This will allow them to determine the low chance of getting Coronavirus, primarily if the severe form afflicts them.
Talking to an older child/teen about antibodies and antigens may be a good idea. If they are interested in science and history, give your child/teen reading material about past disease outbreaks from natural sources. Your child/teen may benefit from this information, as it will help them understand how diseases were eliminated and how the world dealt with previous outbreaks.
Talking to your child about the body’s strong warriors that fight infection is a good idea. You can also speak with them or draw/paint pictures together. Healthy eating habits can help those warriors grow stronger. Talk to your child about the many outside warriors, like scientists, and healthcare professionals, who are actively working to prevent people from getting this disease.
When creating an activity or exercising for your child/teen, it is essential to consider if they have Obsessive Compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD can cause a person to fixate on or get stuck on one thing. You should monitor your child/teen’s behavior to ensure that the activity/exercise does not become a routine. OCD can also lead to OCD-like symptoms in teens and children. This is especially true if they are exposed to the coronavirus epidemic and the need for frequent handwashing. In that case, you may work with your child’s therapist/psychiatrist to weave in and integrate the CDC precautions and recommendations into ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) so precautions are followed without becoming compulsive rituals. Your child/teen may have symptoms of anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that interfere with school or home life. Please consult a mental healthcare professional immediately and follow up with them.
Monitor News/Media Exposure and Limit
In the United States, most adolescents and children watch hours of television and other media daily. One step in helping your child/teen manage their anxiety is to limit and monitor their exposure to news cycles. Children are more sensitive to news as they get older. Parents should monitor and guide older children to navigate the often confusing and scary information about Coronavirus.
Collaborate and Consult with Healthcare Professionals:
Talk to your pediatrician if your child/teen has an anxiety disorder. If they have not already, arrange a consultation with a mental health professional. Psychotherapy is a standard treatment for anxiety in kids and teens. Many modalities can help with anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one type of psychotherapy, has significant evidence that it effectively treats anxiety in children and teens. Your child/teen may already be under the care of a psychiatrist. You can work closely with them to help them navigate this difficult time.