To help parents, Gillian G. Regan, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, has tips on how to help calm the anxiety affecting children caused by coronavirus and the impact it’s had on their lives.

Coronavirus Updates, Child Health | 4 years ago

Talking to Children and Teens with Anxiety About Coronavirus

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to disrupt families from their everyday lives across the world. We know children and teens especially can be adversely affected, becoming stressed and anxious, by this kind of significant change to their otherwise normal daily routines. To help parents, Gillian G. Regan, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, has tips on how to help calm the anxiety affecting children caused by coronavirus and the impact it’s had on their lives.

As we work to keep our children’s physical health safe during the coronavirus pandemic, we also are finding it pressing to attend to their emotional health during this crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that the coronavirus continues to present mildly for most children — mainly cold-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose, and cough — but might affect more severely children with significant chronic illness or the immunocompromised in the case of transplants or kids with cancer diagnoses. However, research shows that children are particularly sensitive to disruption in their day-to-day lives when it comes to large-scale events, such as natural disasters or public health crises, that they may have trouble understanding.

Children and teens and their families are having to adjust to significant change right now — loss of play dates, not being in schools or childcare centers so also missing out on playing sports and annual school events, no springtime Birthday parties with friends and extended family, even daily naptimes for small children in kindergarten and having to be limited a lot within the boundaries of their house. These unusual conditions are likely causing stress and confusion, fear and a general sense of children’s lives being upside-down, which certainly affects their sense of safety and predictability.

So, children and teens may have a particularly hard time making sense of what’s happening around them right now with the extended loss of school, social time with friends and no playgrounds. That’s why we asked, Gillian G. Regan, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, to share her top tips for how to talk about coronavirus with your kids.

Question 1: What factors may play a role in how my child responds?

Answer 1 | Dr. Regan: We find there are several factors that contribute to how a child might respond to a crisis such as the coronavirus and how it alters their life and removes the safety-net of routine, continuity and predictability. These factors can include:

  1. Age
  2. Developmental level of the child
  3. Existing mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety)
  4. Prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self
  5. Occurrence of other recent stressors or major life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, major move, change of school, etc.)
  6. Parental response to crisis, including parent mental health history (e.g., anxiety)

Q2: How do I explain this virus to my kids in an age appropriate manner?

A2 | Dr. Regan: For younger kids, you probably need less information. For teenagers, you may need more information, but also ask them what they have heard so far so that you can work through that with them. There is quite a bit of misinformation out there, so find out what they’re hearing, and be able to share with them the correct information. There are also some really great resources. The CDC, for example, has a handout for parents about how to speak to kids. Make sure you are accessing factual information.

Q3: How do I reduce my child’s anxiety about the coronavirus?

A3 | Dr. Regan: Restricting social media and exposure to news for kids is going to be really important. A lot of the misinformation spreads rapidly in that way, especially with teenagers who use social media as a primary outlet for social communication. Listening to your kids, listening to their fears, their worries, their questions, being able to address those directly with them will be helpful. Validate their emotions if they are feeling scared. Be able to acknowledge that and be present with them, as this allows you to work through it together. Kids and teenagers look to their parents, so if parents can be calm and reassuring, then kids are more likely to have that same reaction too. So model, model, model.

Q4: What other communication strategies can I use to help ease my child’s anxieties?

A4 | Dr. Regan: Focus on controlling the controllable. So much of COVID-19 is anxiety-producing because there’s a lot of unknown, and that is really stressful for everyone — kids and adults. Take bite-sized pieces of what you can control, like following the CDC’s guidelines on hygiene and disinfecting and practice social distancing. Don’t speak to all these other things that are out of our control, but communicate about the ones that we can do something about right now.”

Q5: How can I explain that my child can’t spend time with one of their friends?

A5 | Dr. Regan: This is like having any other illness and social distancing is one way we can keep each other healthy and safe. When someone has strep throat, we also want to keep them distanced. Validate that this is what we would do to keep us healthy, in general. We just want to make sure that they keep healthy bodies and healthy minds.”

Q6: What to say to children and teens who are missing out on their normal routines, whether that’s school, play dates, birthday parties and celebrations, going shopping or other outings, which are all important to their general sense of self and safety?

A6 | Dr. Regan: Acknowledge that this is really disappointing. These are things that these kids are really excited about, whether it’s birthday parties or going to amusement parks. There’s going to be some interruption to their daily lives, and I think just being able to tell them, ‘You know, you’re feeling really upset today. You really wanted to go to that party, and I’m sorry that that couldn’t happen. Here’s something we can do, instead,’ and being able to provide them with an option. It may not give them exactly what they were hoping for, but it gives them an alternative to be able to occupy their time.

Q7: Do you have any tips to keep kids from going stir-crazy during stay-at-home orders?

A7 | Dr. Regan: Do the best that you can. Spending time outdoors is wonderful if it can be done safely (i.e., while maintaining social distancing as your pediatricians recommend). There are many free educational activities available online that can be done at home. If you need to be more lenient with screen time, that is also okay. Allow yourself to be imperfect during this time. If you’re able and feeling inspired, there are many creative things you can do virtually (e.g., set up a virtual board game for kids to play with their friends or loved ones).

Q8: Do you have any tips for parents who are home for extended periods of time with their kids?

A8 | Dr. Regan: Trying to keep kids occupied and manage their anxiety is also adding stress to parents. Having a predictable routine is helpful for parents and kids. Try to identify a schedule (not rigid) that works for you and your family. I encourage parents to also make sure they are taking time for themselves, engaging in some of their own positive coping skills (e.g., go for a nature walk, talk with a friend). Importantly, give yourselves some grace. This is new for everyone, and we are all doing the best we can each day. Some days will be better than others and that is okay.

As we navigate through coronavirus, it’s ok to feel stress and anxiety. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and think you may need help, call our 24/7 Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400, and speak to a licensed professional.