Families everywhere are adjusting to a new way of life due to social distancing measures like closed schools, workplaces, and more. Given that anxiety was already among the most common mental health problem in kids before the COVID-19 pandemic, what can parents do to help keep this problem at bay? Childhood anxiety scholar Mirae J. Fornander outlines strategies parents can follow.
1. Establish a solid routine
The best way to protect children from experiencing anxiety is to keep life as normal as possible. Even though children are no longer following their usual school day routines, you can establish and follow a new routine at home.
There’s no one right way to structure the day in these circumstances. Decide as a family what age-appropriate daily schedule everyone will follow on weekdays and weekends and try to stick to it as best you can. Brainstorm together the best way that kids – and everyone else – can get some exercise, complete schoolwork and stay connected with friends and teachers. Staying active and engaged will help ward off boredom.
Make an effort to cook and eat as many meals as you can together as a family. Eating together as a family benefits children in many ways. It boosts communication within a household, improves nutrition and increases well-being all around.
Try to watch TV shows and movies as a group instead of having everyone do that on their own.
2. Restrict news consumption and ward off misinformation
Widespread misinformation and fear about the new coronavirus is stoking anxiety. Even people turning to reliable sources can find the the 24/7 news cycle anxiety-provoking when everything happening sounds bad or scary.
To address these problems, children should watch or listen to the news with their parents but only in moderation. Parents should immediately address any questions or concerns their kids may have in a developmentally appropriate manner.
It’s important for parents to monitor their child’s access to the news, limit news consumption at home, and consciously choose the best ways for their family to keep up with current events. One way to protect kids from getting too much information is for parents to read or listen to the news privately using headphones or individual devices. Try not to watch TV news or listen to the radio or podcasts that everyone will hear or watch in the living room, kitchen or other shared spaces.
Remember if you don’t explore your child’s questions with them, someone else – possibly an unreliable source on the internet – will.
3. Monitor and minimize your own anxiety
Children learn anxious behaviors from their parents. Taking the time to address your own worries and decrease your anxiety will benefit everyone around you. Luckily, there are relaxation skills that anyone can use to decrease their anxiety and the negative impact of everyday stress. Those with high levels of stress and anxiety or low mood may benefit the most.
This is a great time for the family to practice deep breathing, meditation and yoga, and other skills found to decrease anxiety. Begin practicing when everyone is relatively calm, such as before bed, and later practice using the skills during times of more stress, like after watching a particularly negative news story.
4. Take actions to protect everyone from the coronavirus
Kids will feel more relaxed if they can gain a sense of control. Adults can teach them specific actions they can take to restrain the spread of the coronavirus. Teach them how to wash their hands correctly and give them incentives to do it often.
For example, kids can choose their own 20-second hand-washing song, such as “Happy Birthday,” a tune from the play “Hamilton,” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” to sing every time they wash their hands. Families can use the Wash Your Lyrics website to create a digital hand-washing poster using a favorite song that they can print out.
Encourage children not to touch their faces, especially their eyes, mouth and nose. With little kids, you can turn this into a game by having them earn a sticker whenever they catch a relative touching their own face.
Make sure everyone in your family drinks enough water, eats a balanced diet and stays as active as they can given the circumstances. Being physically healthy makes it easier for your body to fight off illnesses. Together as a family, make a list of fun activities you can do while you are home together. Encourage everyone to submit ideas and choose multiple activities a day. Staying active and busy helps people of all ages feel better no matter what’s going on in the world or at home.