If adults are feeling overwhelmed, concerned and confused about the mass media coverage of the COVID-19 health crisis, kids are having an even harder time trying to understand what is happening. Neuro-developmentally, children don’t yet have the complex cognitive processing and emotional regulation skills that adults use to cope in times of intense stress, rapid change and uncertainty.
It’s incredibly important that children get a chance to talk through what they’re seeing, hearing and perceiving about COVID-19 in the media or via conversations in their social networks. Even an overheard conversation at school or the supermarket can have a huge impact. Children need a trusted adult who will listen to their concerns, offer reassurance and answer questions, and help them to process how they are feeling. This includes healthy ways to cope with anxiety and tolerate uncertainty- kids are deeply resilient after all and tend to manage the hardships of life so much better when they’ve got the support of a reassuring adult to guide the way.
During this unprecedented health crisis that is having impacts on every level of society, it is normal and understandable for kids to be exhibiting behavioural signs of anxiety. Kids may not yet have fully developed the cognitive or vocabulary skills to articulate how they’re feeling. If children aren’t expressing their concerns verbally, below are some signs of emerging stress and anxiety to watch out for.
Children tend to express anxiety via psychosomatic (or body-mind) symptoms, including:
As an adult, you can help children manage anxiety by knowing how to spot their warning signs and triggers for stress, and have age-appropriate conversations that help them to process complex emotions.
Try to respond supportively to your child’s reactions, whether they’re physical, emotional or verbal manifestations of concern. Take the time where you can to pause, give them undivided attention, and listen.
If you can incorporate play, creativity and something fun and active into their explorations and your explanations, all the better. Children develop confidence in themselves when they feel productive and supported in their natural curiosity.
Drawing, using homemade figurines, creating names and characters to act out the conversation you’re having are simple yet effective ways to help children make something tangible out of abstract concepts and worries. Making sense, creating meaning, moving through big feelings- these are lifelong skills you can start nurturing in your child.
NOT knowing the answers, having no idea how something will pan out can also be a great lesson in tolerating uncertainty. You might like to try DIY science experiments and treasure hunts around the house, or spending time encouraging empathy for others in “The What-If Imaginarium” each day (e.g. “What if we could help someone else to feel better today? Who would we help? What would we do for them?”). These activities allow children’s minds to wander and wonder whilst giving them a sense of their own purpose and ability to make a meaningful contribution.
You’ll find that children might want to ask questions and explore hypotheticals about certain situations- more often than not, they are checking to see how changing COIVD-19 conditions for the community affect them personally.
Try to stick to facts when explaining the concepts of what is happening. Listening patiently and giving clear, factual direction about what children can do is reassuring, and gives them a sense of control about how they can play their part.
An amazing recent example of how to do this right was here. The Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, conducted a kids-only press conference on Coronavirus, and took the time to answer questions from children in the wake of this health pandemic.
While she was able to validate and address their concerns (“It is okay to be scared when so many things happen at the same time”), she also held strong to explaining facts in simple language, and gave clear suggested actions in the hypotheticals children came up with (to the question “can I have a birthday party?”, the Prime Minister advised “If somebody has a birthday in the class, everybody should ring them and sing happy birthday!”). She calmly emphasised how children could help- by staying home, they could help to prevent older and frail people from becoming ill.
Give children facts and concepts in words they can understand, and let them know how important their role is to helping everyone stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. This short video is a perfectly simple way to start, or this YouTube video
Make the most of any isolation or containment time by taking time to emotionally connect with your child. Children look for adults’ love, time and reassurance to assess their own position on what’s happening. Extra love, affection and space to discuss personal, household and community events with your kids will scaffold a feeling of connectedness, resilience and stability, even in unstable times.
As we all adapt and move with this rapidly changing global health crisis and temporary restrictions, we need to remember that children also benefit from a clear source of factual information, and guidelines that reassure them of protection. Most importantly- you don’t have to know all the answers to keep your child feeling secure, loved and confident. Just keep listening, talking and remind them that they too can help.
Contact our counselling services if you would like help to work out what solution is best for you and your family during these unknown times.
Mahlia is the CEO of Life Supports Counselling and has been advocating within the mental health industry since 2013. With tertiary degrees in Science, Psychology and the Arts from Monash University, she is innately curious about human behaviour, neuroscience and psychology and translating the frontiers of scientific research into real-world business application.
Mahlia has a passion for building socially impactful businesses that help people thrive, and is responsible for leading and developing all aspects of the Life Supports mental health service, vision & purpose.