Helping Your Kids with Covid Anxiety

October 7, 2020

By Marianne Croonquist, MS MFT

It’s like a wildfire when it shows up…anxiety. And it can be equally devastating. For a child prone to anxiety, living in a global pandemic can cause paralysis and terror. But even those with easy going temperaments may be struggling with all the changes and restrictions we are currently negotiating.

A best scenario to eliminate stress for children is to prepare them and establish small steps to manage a big change. This was a luxury none of us had in mid-March when schools, work, and “normal” as we knew it changed. The adults supposed to lead children are still reeling from the abrupt halt of how life was. Six months later, many of the children I counsel have recalibrated to parents’ work and their school happening at home. They have a new normal, while their parents are still uncomfortable and stressed.

That said, there certainly are kids who feel anxious, worried and out of control in ways they have never known. Each of us will have stories to recount for the rest of our lives about the pandemic of 2020.

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry, nervousness or fear. It can be like a slow boil happening all the time. Senses are heightened and there is a constant agitation in the background of everything else. It can flare up and bubble over, being all consuming. Increased heart rates, sweaty palms, shaking or stomach distress are some signs of anxiety. A panic attack is a sudden jolt of anxiety which dominates everything and physiologically must run its course, before calm is restored again. Today many of us experience global anxiety as everyone and every place is impacted with a pervasive underlying fear of Covid-19.

How am I, a professional therapist and grandmother to two incredible children, experiencing the stress of Covid 19? There are days I can hold on to perspective and choose an upbeat attitude. I can be the leader, teacher, prayer warrior, stability provider and perspective giver. But some days I am pushing through sludge just to show up for the have-to’s. Zoom fatigued, 10 pounds heavier, indifferent and sometimes depressed at the chores of the day, I know the stress myself, and I certainly see it in others.

I see the shifts and needs in my grandchildren. Trent, 10, an introvert, is overly content with his Nintendo Switch, Roblox and Pokémon Go!. He still longs for his karate classes, recess and kids his age. Ellie, 6, needs more people to listen to her chortle away. This season she behaves more withdrawn, subdued and sad. She misses the squealing and delight other six-year-old’s can provide and the satisfaction of cooperating well for her teacher. Being the Grandma who takes them on adventures, we all grieve the loss of our shared fun traveling to the beach, to see friends or having a new adventure. For many of us this anxious season has lasted way too long.

Change brings fear and anxiety. Both our brain and our body are effected. It is normal to feel helpless and sad when life is different from what we thought was normal, but where do you land on a continuum of mild to intense feelings? And where do your children land?

Kids have amazing coping skills when it comes to change. Their brains and bodies work hard to explain confusing observations and process the discomfort they experience. Starting a new school or challenges at the same one, the death of a loved one, and arguing parents are more common stressors children encounter. A pandemic that the whole planet is negotiating? Uncommon.

Central to any parent coaching is connection with your child, pandemic or not. Establishing regular check-ins where you intently listen to what they are saying is essential. Being heard is an agent of healing, value and identity. The great thing about children is they behave their feelings, especially if they don’t have words for them. Each of you know what that looks like. Tears, whining, sighing, back-talking, nail-biting, tantrums, meltdowns, avoidance, aggression and, especially in older children, isolation and irritability. Be sure to listen to words shared and behaviors observed.

It helps your child manage stress when you positively reframe the situation. Shifting the frame of possibilities provides a different perspective on a given situation. In a calm voice, the following reframes are soothing to an anxious child.

  • We are staying home only until we can be safe again going to school and work.
  • We are seeing your cousins on Zoom tonight; let’s create a show for them.
  • Recess on the school playground is fun; right now, for your break, let’s go kick the soccer ball together.

As a family, practicing gratitude helps refocus on the positive. My Trent’s favorite gratitude items are connected to his game system, TV, and school time ending for the day. Ellie’s list typically includes her most loved plushy of the day, snuggle time, and riding her bike. I land on the practical items of health, a safe home, and God’s constancy. Anxiety will lessen when we focus on the here and now and stop fast forwarding to hoped for “what if” events and things that are beyond our control.

Reliable structure and predictable routines provide the healthy soil of family life. Here are some specific ideas to reduce anxiety.

  • Run around, walk, play hard so you are physically worn out.
  • Share goofy jokes and laugh—this interrupts the cycle of worry.
  • Observe plants growing and care for them to teach time, waiting, and the importance of nurture.
  • Take deep, rhythmical breathing to reset your bodies. Super Nanny has a child friendly technique: smell the roses (inhale through your nose to a slow count of 3) and blow out the birthday candles (exhale completely through your mouth to a count of 3).
  • Take body breaks where you shrink like a turtle then jump like a frog. The tightening and releasing of our muscles regulates our mind and body.
  • Breathe in the scent of vanilla or lavender to encourage calmness.
  • Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can say. This is an excellent recovery exercise to shift out of a panic attack.
  • Determine a safe place to go and a safe object to hold for every child in the house when they need to soothe themselves and calm down.

If your child’s anxiety persists and starts to become debilitating, it may be helpful to consult a mental health professional. Some signs your child may benefit from professional help include an increase of the unspoken behaviors listed above, not wanting to participate in activities they used to enjoy, not completing every day tasks, or not sleeping well, which can affect their energy and appetite.

Self-care and supportive friendships are essential for all ages, especially parents during a pandemic. Your children take cues from you about how to move through situations. Be their leader with joy, confidence, and peace. As an adult, if your anxiety is so persistent it hinders daily living, or functioning at work or home, seek help from a counselor or medical professional.

Marianne Croonquist is in private practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, located in San Dimas, California. She delights in spending time with her two grandchildren and their mother.