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Family Wellness

COVID-19: Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety

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By Kristin Klahr PhD, Amie Wolf PhD, Geena Kuriakose PhD, Kelly Geisler PhD, Amy Margolis PhD – Brooklyn Learning Center

When anxiety is rooted in something rational – how can we help kids cope?

The Basics
Fear is fear, worries are worries, regardless of the reality of a threat. For children, or adults, who are prone to hard-to-regulate anxiety, their fears and worries are magnified in times of stress. In fact, during times of stress as we are living in now, all of us are prone to worry. We can get stuck in thinking about worst-case scenarios.

Psychologists have studied anxiety more than most problems and we have specific, tested ways to help reduce the effects of stress. Below are concrete ways to help our children. The overarching goal is to help them refocus their thoughts on the here and now, help them to understand that we can all live with uncertainty, and that the potential for danger is not the same as certainty of danger.

Shift The Frame
As adults, our first thoughts are often to protect kids from the realities of the world that are for us very scary. Realistically, the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is fear-inducing and stirs up our difficulty sitting with uncertainty. And, with a little bit of time to settle into the news of the virus and the changes in our daily routines, we can start to see all of the positives of daily life that are still mixed in with our daily challenges.

Helping professionals, parents, teachers, therapists – we can all model for our children strategies for appreciating these valued parts of our routines. Re-contextualizing our worries about the uncertainty of the virus into a bigger, less threatening picture that comprises the positives and negatives of our daily life shifts the frame from the “world is scary” to there are real worries and life goes on.

Embrace a Mindset of Promoting Safety Rather Than Avoiding Harm
First, we need to shift our focus from fear of danger to promotion of health and safety. Sure, the virus has the potential to make people sick if we stick with our usual routines, but we have a lot of strategies for keeping each other healthy through changes to our daily routines. For example, we have all committed to washing our hands, for at least 20 seconds, before all meals and after coming in contact with other people outside of our homes. We have also agreed to stay home for the time being, while staying connected to our teachers, friends, and classmates through technology (phone calls, texts, video calls, etc.).

Shifting our focus to these healthy behaviors, while conveying the idea that we can take control of our lives during these changing times, will help our kids to build resiliency.

Your Language Can Tell The Whole Story
Build plans for health and safety together, as a family. Remember, it is important for children to have information about the virus and reasons for changing our daily routines, but they do not need all of the details. Language is important for developing helpful plans and rules that promote confidence and security for children: for example, “We can stay healthy and safe by…” will help children benefit and participate with reduced anxiety, whereas, “We may catch the virus and get ill if we don’t…” may promote more worries for some children.

Family plans may include setting a routine that is similar to previous work/school routines (wake up and bedtimes, meal times, getting dressed for work/school, class times, recess, outdoor time, etc.), with additions such as washing hands when coming into the house from outdoors, smiling and waving at friends from six steps away, scheduling playtime with friends through phone or video calls, and limiting travel to places within walking distance of home.

Schedule Your News Intake and Your Worry Time
Helping our kids to regulate their worries in response to the current pandemic starts with us. We can easily find ourselves pouring over newspapers, scrolling through social media, and
watching and re-watching press conferences to consume information about the pandemic. The more time we spend immersed in that content, the more time we are prone to spend worrying about it.

Worry is okay and inevitable right now; and, it is important that we schedule time for worrying AND time away from worrying. As we make our daily schedules and develop new routines, setting aside a specific time or times to catch up on the news and to acknowledge our worries will be important for freeing up mental space for positive thinking and proactive planning.

Allow Children Time To Worry
Once you’ve developed family plans for managing the temporary social distancing/safety model and your own plan for scheduling news/information consumption and worry time, help develop worry time for your children. For young children, try to limit the amount of information they are consuming from television, newspapers, and web-based feeds. Curate the information that you are gathering and share small, manageable snippets with them so that they feel informed but not overwhelmed. For older children, help them develop their own schedule, just as you have done for yourself.

Set aside some time each day to give voice to any worries they may be experiencing. During these “worry times,” validate the feeling (“Feeling upset about missing school and not getting to see your friends is normal. These feelings are strong now because the situation is very new”) and then present a positive frame to re-contextualize the worry as manageable (“Feelings come and go, and each time we notice these worry feelings, we can remind ourselves that they will pass and we have a plan for staying healthy and safe.”)

Reading Between The Lines
Children may have a lot of questions, and they will be looking to adults for answers. They will pay attention not only to what adults say, but how they say it and any nonverbal indicators of how they are managing the uncertainty. When establishing plans, state with confidence that you are going to help your child succeed in this transitional period. Acknowledge that there are some things that you do not have answers to, but also tell them, “that’s okay, we will find answers in time.” Try not to downplay the seriousness of the situation through statements like, “The virus is no big deal and everything will be back the way it was soon;” instead, help your child to think realistically about the situation through a more controlled lens, like “We are following the advice of health experts so that we can stay safe while they work on the virus.”

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CDC response to COVID-19
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J. J. (2014). Types of parental involvement in CBT with anxious youth: A preliminary meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(6),
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