How to Deal With COVID-19 Fears And Anxiety In Children

With so much uncertainty due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, your child is probably dealing with a whole bunch of fears. What can you do to soothe your anxious child during these uncertain times?

By Nalina Ramalakshmi

How to Deal With COVID-19 Fears And Anxiety In Children

Today, there is so much talk, fear and panic about the novel coronavirus all around us. Turn on the news, go to social media, chat with your friends – all you hear is how the ‘coronavirus’ is spreading to people, killing people, shutting down schools, malls, theaters, restaurants and even organisations. Add to this, young children have wild imaginations. They wonder if and when this evil-corona-creature will come and get them or their loved ones. This can be really scary for children.

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Understanding your child's fears and anxiety

When there is an actual threat or a perceived threat, our brain responds with an inbuilt survival instinct that is meant to protect us from danger. Our emotions take over and shut down our ability to think clearly or rationally. So, trying to reason with a child who is feeling scared or anxious doesn’t help.

Sometimes, we parents add to our children’s fears when we say things like – ‘Be careful, wash your hands’, ‘Don’t touch this. You may get infected’, ‘Don’t go out, you may catch the virus’, and so on. But your child needs you to make him feel safe and secure in this time of global corona-panic.

First, take care of your fears

The first step is to take care of your own fears and anxiety, before you can deal with your anxious child. Get the facts about the virus from reliable sources. List out all the things that are making you anxious and see if and what you can do about each of them. You may realise that the situation is manageable, and this will help you better handle your fears and anxiety.

How to tell if my child is anxious about the virus

Here are some of the signs that tell you that your child is fearful or anxious about the COVID-19 virus:

Your child is:

  • Overcautious
  • Washing hands excessively
  • Wary of people
  • Constantly talking about the virus
  • Overreacting to a sneeze or a cough
  • Asking repetitive questions to feel reassured

Other signs of anxiety include:

  • Fast breathing or difficulty in breathing
  • Increased rate of heartbeat
  • Sweaty palms
  • Feeling of nausea
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Nervous movements such as shaky, twitchy hands
  • Clingy
  • Tears and tantrums
  • Problems getting to sleep and/or restless nights
  • Bad dreams
  • Bedwetting
  • Any other signs of uneasiness

If you notice any of these signs, just acknowledging your child’s fear and letting him talk about it will help your child feel better.

Caution: When the fear or anxiety is extreme and overwhelming, your child may have a panic attack. She may have difficulty breathing and it may feel like she is losing control of her body. If your child is having panic attacks that is interfering with her day-to-day life and school, seek the help of a professional counselor or psychologist.

How to support your child with fears and anxieties

How to Deal With COVID-19 Fears And Anxiety In Children

If your child is dealing with normal fears and anxieties during these uncertain times, your support and understanding will help her gradually overcome her fears.

10 Tips to calm your anxious child

  1. Never dismiss or ignore your child’s fears or anxieties, by saying things like, ‘Don't be silly. There is nothing to be scared of.’
  2. Show your child you understand how she feels – ‘I know that is so scary’, ‘I can see you are worried’.
  3. Ask your child to tell you all the things that is making him worried and scared about the coronavirus. Listen to why they make him scared.
  4. When your child is anxious, a lot of ‘what if’ statements go through her head – ‘What if I get the virus?’, ‘What if grandma gets the virus? Will she die?’, ‘What if there is no food in the grocery store?’, ‘What if I am quarantined and can’t see my mom or dad?’, and so on. Ask her to tell you what may happen in the worst-case scenario. Hear her out without brushing it away or trying to explain why she may be overreacting. Once she expresses her worries, she may realise it is not so bad after all.
  5. Avoid labeling your child as ‘anxious’ or ‘worry-head’.
  6. Get the facts and answer all your child’s queries in an age-appropriate, matter-of-fact way.
  7. Teach your child some calming techniques like taking slow deep breaths. Ask him to do this at least 5 times and have him observe his breathing.
  8. Have him imagine doing things that make him happy.
  9. Read books that will help your child deal with his fears.
  10. Spend time together playing games, chatting or doing some fun activities.

5 Things you should never say to an anxious child

  1. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.
  2. There’s nothing to be scared of.
  3. You are always worrying about everything.
  4. You are so anxious all the time.
  5. I can’t understand why you are so scared or worried.

10 Phrases to calm an anxious child

  1. I understand
  2. I get it
  3. Tell me how you feel
  4. It’s okay to be scared
  5. I feel scared too
  6. Tell yourself, “Yes I can do this!” or “It’s going to be okay”
  7. Close your eyes and think about something that makes you happy
  8. Take a deep breath and count to 10
  9. Give me a hug
  10. Let me help you feel safe

Soothing answers to your child's anxious questions

We are facing unprecedented times where life seems to have turned upside down and no one seems to know what to expect next. Your child too will have many anxious questions. Here are some commonly asked questions and some pointers on how you could respond to them:

1. Your child asks: Why can’t I go to school? Why do we have to stay home all day? Why can’t we go to the mall?

What not to say: Because the government says we have to be home. The coronavirus is dangerous, it spreads easily, and we can fall sick.

Your child thinks: This is scary stuff. We are all going to get sick and maybe die.

What to say instead: The virus survives only when it can live inside people’s bodies. When we stay home, we are hiding in a place where the virus can’t find us. If all of us hide, the virus can’t find people to go live inside their bodies. The virus will then die. We all want to kill the virus before it can hurt more people.

Your child thinks: If I stay home, I am also a warrior fighting this evil virus.

2. You child asks: Will I fall sick? Will you fall sick? Will grandma fall sick?

What not to say: Don’t be so worried. We are going to be fine.

Your child thinks: But everyone around me is so worried and I’m worried. Why can’t my parents understand me?

What to say instead: I know it is so worrying when you hear all the talk about the coronavirus. We are all concerned too. But we are taking good care of ourselves by washing our hands, staying away from crowded places and eating healthy to keep our bodies strong. This way we are ensuring we stay healthy and not fall sick.

Your child thinks: My mom/dad understands my worries. We are all taking care of ourselves, so we don’t fall sick.

3. You child asks: What will happen if I am quarantined? Will you be there for me?

What not to say: Why are you thinking all that? You will be fine.

Your child thinks: But I’m scared. I don’t like being alone without mom or dad.

What to say instead: I can see you are scared of being alone. If you do get sick and have to be kept in isolation, I will be there to keep you safe and comfortable.

Your child thinks: My mom/dad will be there to take care of me.

Here are more tips on talking to your child about the COVID-19 virus.

Remember, it is normal for a child to have fears and some anxiety during this period of heightened uncertainty and anxiety. Your child needs your understanding and support to help deal with his fears and remain calm. Schools may have shut down and you may be working from home. It is a great time to play and engage with your child in fun ways. This will not only help to distract you and your child away from the coronavirus, it will also help you build stronger connections with your child.

Also read: COVID-19 FAQs and Prevention Tips For Parents

About the author:

Written by Nalina Ramalakshmi on 19 March 2020; updated on 24 March 2020.

Nalina Ramalakshmi is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of ParentCircle. 

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