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Helping children cope with anxiety during the Covid-19 crisis

by | Jun 27, 2020

While you’re struggling to work from home and keep your finances afloat, don’t forget that your children are anxious too. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje has some tips to help them cope.

The current global pandemic has had a huge impact on how our families and societies function. There have been multiple changes in how we experience our social, schooling, working and travelling experiences.

The nationwide lockdown has led to a loss of normal routines in meeting with loved ones, going to school, working with colleagues and enjoying holiday times. These numerous adjustments most certainly have emotional repercussions as well, for both parents and children.

It is important to prioritise and protect our mental health during such uncertain times. Here are a few ways to help children cope with anxieties during the covid19 pandemic.

  1. Help explain terminology around Covid-19

Children will overhear our adult conversations about the pandemic, or will hear snippets on the news. It is important that they understand what some of these big words and descriptions mean.

Try to give your child an age-appropriate explanation of what a virus is and how to keep safe. For example, you may tell the child that a virus is something that can make us feel sick, but is so tiny we cannot see it. We need to wash our hands often to make sure we can stay healthy.

  1. Explain the importance of handwashing

The current focus on hygiene can be used as a helpful opportunity to teach children about how to wash their hands thoroughly. Often children want to rush through this so that they can get back to playing or eating. It is important to show and model for children how to wash their hands properly, making lots of foam and getting into all the grooves.

  1. Limit social media and news access for children and teens

Limit the amount of news your child is able to access about the virus on social media or the television. There is a lot of false news circulating about the pandemic that only serves to worsen our experiences of panic.

Instead, focus on only getting updates from reputable and scientific sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and fact checking other information that may be shared with you before sharing this with your children.

  1. Set up a new routine and schedule

Children thrive in structured and safe environments. They are used to the structure of their school day, divided up into periods by the sound of the school bell. Creating a new routine is helpful for both you and your children.

Feeling in control of one’s daily actions can build up a sense of empowerment. For example, it is still important to go to bed and wake up at the same time even though children don’t have to be at school at a certain time. Sleep routines can easily be thrown out amidst anxious feelings, and poor-quality sleep exacerbates a low or anxious mood.

  1. Have fun

Amidst all the anxiety-provoking news, changes to routines and lockdown protocols, we also need to create some balance for ourselves and our children. We can still try to make time for light-hearted activities. Children learn through play, and also use play as a space to make sense of and process their tricky feelings.

Play board games, play in the garden if you have one, build puzzles, read books, draw pictures, have movie nights, involve children in cooking simple meals, build Lego, do jumping jacks…

  1. Take a time out

Some parents may be trying to juggle working remotely from home while still maintaining the household chores and caring for the children’s educational and play needs. This can be an overwhelming and exhausting task.

If you have other family members living with you, it can be helpful to take turns to care for the children while the other gets some work done. It is also important to be realistic about productivity over this period where it may not actually be possible to get everything done!

  1. Use technology to connect

For those of us fortunate enough to have access to internet and technology, this can be used as a way for children to still feel connected to those they care about. There are many video apps available for children to connect and chat with their school classmates and their other family members. This is important to manage feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially for those who may not have siblings.

  1. Reflect and normalise your child’s feelings

If we can name the feeling for our child, they are more able to manage it. Labelling and acknowledging your child’s emotional states can allow them to feel more in control of their experiences, rather than feeling like their emotions are controlling them.

By validating your child’s worries or concerns they are also more likely to talk to you about them and receive comfort and reassurance when they need it. If they do not have this space to make sense of their feelings, they may be more likely to act out their anxieties in other behaviours (tantrums, neediness, wetting the bed, etc.).

  1. Gratitude

Many of the things on this list of tips assumes one has access to technology, and a home to retreat to in such a time of unsafety and worries about our health. Many people in our communities do not have running water to wash their hands, or they do not have spare change to buy their children art supplies and puzzles to stay busy.

A positive psychology tool we can use to help manage our worries is a gratitude journal. Each day sit together as a family and share two or three things each family member is grateful for. This can help children focus on those things around them that they value. Compassion, kindness, appreciation, patience and empathy can be very healing in the face of illness, worry and loneliness.

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