Helping Children and Teens Cope with Anxiety About COVID-19

As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to spread, adults, children and teens are trying to make sense of what the outbreak means for their families and communities. Those with anxiety disorders may feel more worry than usual.

On the Pulse asked Dr. Jennifer Blossom, a psychology postdoctoral fellow at Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Clinic, how to share information with the children and teens in your life in a way that helps prevent too much worry. The good news is that just as there are steps you can take to help you and your loved ones try to avoid the illness, there are steps you can take to help your child or teen cope with the situation.

“There are a number of ways parents can successfully help their child stay on track during this time,” Blossom said. “In general, the goal is for parents to encourage their child’s participation in routine activities, such as going to school (as informed by the most recent public health recommendations or decision by your child’s school district), while helping their child think realistically about the risks.”

First, get the facts about COVID-19

Learn the facts about COVID-19, sticking to a few credible sources of information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health agencies.

“Limiting information seeking to a few credible sources can help parents stay informed without feeling overwhelmed,” Blossom explained.

Having basic facts about the outbreak and knowing where to turn with questions can help you prepare for talking with children and teens and help them think more realistically about the risk. For example, the CDC and Public Health Seattle-King County’s websites provide the most current information about the virus, including ways to avoid getting COVID-19, how to prepare for changes to daily life, symptoms and what to do if you or a family member gets sick. School districts are sharing their plans for handling the virus and are another source to pay attention to as the situation changes.

Check in with your child and ask what questions they have

Once you have some information as background, check in with your child or teen. Choose a time that works for you – some families avoid talking about tough topics right before bedtime.

Start by asking what your child knows about the situation. Listen more than you talk and try to validate their feelings. The COVID-19 situation is rapidly changing and there is still a lot to learn.

“Ultimately, a big driver of anxiety is uncertainty,” Blossom said. “Parents can validate that sitting with uncertainty is hard for their child (and themselves) while also sending the message that their child can still participate in routine activities.”

Be honest and give simple answers to their questions.  You can correct misinformation, but avoid telling them not to worry.

“Anxiety makes us overestimate risk and underestimate our ability to cope.” Blossom explained. “The goal is to help your child realistically evaluate risks based on available information.”

You might say, “We can do things to try to stay healthy, like washing our hands regularly and avoiding touching our faces,” “It’s true that some people have died from this, and most people who get this illness are OK,” or “Doctors and scientists are working hard to learn how to stop it from spreading.”

Ask your child or teen to come to you with questions or concerns as the days go by. They may hear things from kids at school or see things online and wonder if they’re true.

If your child’s school has been closed, they may have concerns about grades, sports seasons and canceled field trips or events they had been looking forward to. Hear out their concerns. Ask for their ideas on what pieces they can control.

Watch for changes in behavior

Along with listening to your child’s words, notice signs of extra stress, like problems with sleep, separation anxiety, repetitive behaviors (such as excessive hand-washing) or the need for excessive reassurance.

More tears or anger than usual may also show that your child is worried.

Help your child face their anxiety about COVID-19

“Anxiety promotes avoidance and over time avoidance ultimately worsens anxiety,” Blossom said.

Stick to routines as much as possible while following recommendations from your county’s health department.

“Helping your child function, such as going to school or completing regular chores, while they feel anxious is the key,” Blossom said. “Doing so helps your child learn that they can accomplish tasks even when they feel anxious.”

Continuing with regular activities like family meals, bedtime routines and family movie night can provide a sense of safety and security.

Model healthy ways to cope with anxiety that you may have, for example, mentioning that you feel anxious and showing your child or teen how you can still complete a task. Show confidence in your child’s ability to face their anxiety. Recognize their bravery with praise and rewards, even when steps are small.

Limit media coverage

While it’s important to be informed as recommendations change, try to turn off media, including social media, for most of the day to help you and your family from feeling overwhelmed. This can be a challenge in the modern digital age. If you have a Family Media Use Plan, stick to it.

Take care of yourself

Develop a plan to manage your own feelings. Talking with friends, family and colleagues may help.

Additional help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) operates the Disaster Distress Helpline. It offers crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to disasters and infectious disease outbreaks. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.