Children At Risk for Anxiety Issues During COVID-19 Crisis

Therapists say it's normal and OK to feel this way -- especially when feeling isolated at home

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The coronavirus is no doubt giving us all anxiety.

A recent study from the University of Michigan shows most adults in America are attributing their stress to job loss, the worry of being able to pay bills, and becoming a sudden at-home teacher for their children.

Those stressful emotions can trickle down to their kids through the form of mental health issues, if parents are not careful.

But before worrying about it, therapists say it's normal and OK to feel this way -- especially when isolated at home. Just keep in mind that with both kids and teens having to stay at home for weeks and months to come, they are at very high risk for some anxiety issues if left unchecked by their parents.

“The reality is, social distancing is essentially asking us all to do a symptom of depression. A symptom of depression is isolation, so since we’re all doing that, it’s really hard. And we really have to make an effort to connect virtually,” said Roshini Kumar, a clinical therapist specializing in child anxiety with Children's Health in Dallas. “Anxiety really feeds off the fear of the unknown. So right now there’s a lot that we don’t know and that we can’t anticipate, so when our structure is not what it normally is, it can really cause kids to start to worry.”

What does anxiety even look like?

While it varies with age, it could be any of the following:

  • Biting nails
  • Fidgeting
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating

Kumar says there are some easy coping skills that parents can do right now at home.

Check in with your child often. Listen without interrupting and communicate as much as possible.

Think positive. Reframing negative thoughts to be more positive is a common practice in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most evidence-based treatments for anxiety.

"You can't tell a child to stop being anxious, but you can say, ‘Tell me what you're thinking,'" Kumar said. "Then, you can help your child figure out if a thought is based in fact or based in what-if thinking. If it's based in what-if thinking, work together to change it to reflect something positive."

Take time to share what you are grateful for during this time or to share what you appreciate about your child. Experts said if you can focus on the positives and encourage positive conversation, moods will eventually change.

Create a safe space at home where a child can go to de-escalate.

“If you can practice things like deep breathing, or counting down from 100, de-escalating a little bit and noticing something that you see, something you can touch and smell -- these grounding techniques that can help with anxiety as well,” Kumar said.

Focus on what you can control like drawing a picture, writing a letter to a teacher, or creating daily tasks.

Her last tip is important. Schools were a form of routine for kids so crafting a new routine for your child can create a sense of normalcy.

“To help anxiety, to reinstate things that we already know such as a structured schedule, it gives the child something to look forward to and it creates a sense of stability in a world right now that seems unstable,” Kumar said.

Click here for more anxiety solutions from Children’s Health.

Kumar also says parents need to cut themselves some slack. Your child's schedule doesn't have to be perfect nor should you feel pressured to be 100% productive every day.

“Give yourself a break a little bit. This is a really tough time and I think parents have a lot of responsibility right now. A lot of them are working from home themselves and are playing schoolteacher and trying to manage the dynamics of a family,” she said. “So really give yourself a little bit of a breather and know that it’s OK to feel stressed.”

If your child's anxiety persists and starts to become debilitating, Children's Health said it may be helpful to consult a mental health professional. Signs your child may benefit from professional help include not being able to accomplish everyday tasks, not wanting to participate in activities they used to enjoy or not sleeping well which can affect their energy and appetite.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers some guidelines on coping with stress and anxiety for all ages.

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