We are living in a time of high uncertainty, and with adults becoming increasingly anxious about coronavirus—including its impact on the economy, work, school, and family life—it’s inevitable that the children in our lives are noticing that tension.
When the nervous systems of parents, educators, and other adult authority figures are activated by fear, it can act as a warning to children, whose own nervous systems become alert as a result.
After all, if the people in charge seem scared, it only makes sense to be concerned.
While we can’t eliminate the transmission of our own anxiety to the children in our lives, we can mitigate the impact in some significant ways:
1. Manage your own nervous system.
Do what you can to support your own well-being, and manage your own fears. Remember that simply intentionally slowing down your breath and feeling your feet on the ground can go a long way toward calming the nervous system. Here are a wide range of helpful resources specifically on coronavirus and health anxiety from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
2. Be honest but not alarmist.
Kids hear their grown-ups talking and see us worry, and if we are secretive on top of all that, they are left to manage their fears alone. It’s important that we share what is happening with children (keep it simple!) and give them time to ask questions. Here is a great resource from NPR, in comic form, that can help with the conversation
3. Teach kids what they can do.
Being able to take action in a situation that feels threatening is usually very helpful. You’ve undoubtedly heard all the recommendations to wash hands frequently and are likely telling your kids to do so. Making the direct connection for them that every time they do a good handwash, they are not only helping themselves, but others as well, can make things feel a little less out of their control.
4. Reassure them that the grown-ups are on It.
Tell children explicitly that some of the smartest and most educated doctors and scientists in the world are working to learn more about this virus every day, that you are paying attention to what is happening, and that you’ll talk with them about any new developments. For many kids, this kind of direct language allows them to, in effect, outsource their worries to you. If the person in charge is on it and honest, then kids are more likely to feel that they don’t have to keep trying to figure it out themselves.
5. Reduce anxiety with exercise and fresh air.
Often children’s anxiety needs to be addressed from the body up, and one of the quickest ways to change the biology of anxiety in our bodies is with exercise. If it can happen outside, that’s even better. If you are able to do so while maintaining social distancing and the guidelines issued by your local government, take advantage of some early spring weather, and get your kids walking or running outside, onto bikes and scooters, jumping on trampolines, on hiking trails, or anything else that is accessible to you. Do it as a family and you can reduce your own anxiety as well!
Remember, children are incredibly resilient. When we honor their fears, and walk through the experience with them, they are often able to process even very intense situations in healthy ways that build more resilience. By keeping them in the dark, minimizing their concerns, or focusing only on distractions, we may be inadvertently reinforcing the very anxiety we are hoping to help them manage.