How to Manage Anxiety in Uncertain Times

By Kathryn Howard, LMFT, PPS/CWA, High School Therapist

How a child/teen responds to news of the novel coronavirus may depend on several factors, such as 1) age of the child, 2) language/comprehension abilities and developmental level of the child, 3) presence, severity and type of anxiety disorder(s) or other psychiatric conditions, 4) prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self, 5) occurrence of other recent stressors or major life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, major move, change of school), etc. Therefore, a parent’s response would need to be tailored to the individual situation and context surrounding their child/teen.

The following are a few general tips for communicating with an anxious/child or teen about coronavirus. These may not apply if your child/teen is suffering from a moderate to severe anxiety disorder. In that case, please consult your child’s mental health professional/psychiatrist/pediatrician at the earliest, to devise or modify your child/teen’s individualized treatment plan so that it weaves in the recommended precautions.

Model Calmness:
The most important and impactful form of communication to your child/teen is your own behavior. Children can sense their parents’ anxiety even when parents are not voicing or expressing their anxiety-related thoughts or fears. Carving a few minutes for yourself for mindful breathing pauses during the day may help you model calm for your child/teen. Making time for conversations that do not involve the virus would be helpful.

Maintain Normalcy:
Significant changes to daily routines or schedules are stressful and convey to the child that you are very concerned, or there is a crisis. Maintaining a routine and structure during the day may help anxiety. Sitting around idle without a plan for the day is likely to escalate anxiety, especially for teens already suffering from anxiety. This may be a time to engage in an activity that they don’t have time for during the week. Also, spend more time as a family-maybe schedule family game night or movie night.

Listen Actively:
Listen to your child/teen’s feelings, worries, fears, and questions about coronavirus. Children may receive their news about coronavirus from school, internet, TV, home, or elsewhere. They may worry that the worst may happen to them and/or their friends and loved ones. Ask questions in a non-judgmental and empathetic manner. Show your child/teen that you are present and interested in hearing their thoughts and feelings.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Be careful not to dismiss, invalidate, make fun of, or reject their feelings. You may also inform your child that it is common to feel this way; many other people (including children) experience similar feelings. Many people worry that validating their child’s feelings would mean they agree with those and that this may further increase those feelings. Validating someone’s feelings does not mean you agree with the beliefs underlying those feelings, but it means you acknowledge the presence of those feelings and that you understand that such feelings are a part of the human experience. Validating is very powerful as it helps the person feel understood.

Encourage Distraction:
When we fixate on danger, anxiety grows, and when we turn our attention elsewhere, it shrinks. That said, it might be hard for some teenagers not to obsess about Covid-19, given that the topic pervades headlines and social media. Further, the constant availability of fresh information about the coronavirus may spur some teenagers (and adults) to compulsively check for news updates. This, however, may offer little emotional relief. Try turning off media and only checking a few times a day for updates. This will help your child/teen focus on what they need to accomplish for school or connect with friends.

Know the Facts and Direct towards Facts:
Your child/teen is likely hearing about the novel coronavirus outside the home anyway, so do not shy away from approaching or discussing it. Be proactive in talking to your child/teen about facts regarding the coronavirus. For this, you will need to equip yourself with and read about the facts around coronavirus first. Ensure that you are getting your facts from reliable sources, such as the CDC:

Practice Compassion:
Wide-scale infectious disease outbreaks, such as the current one, are bound to be stressful and can be challenging to maneuver, particularly when they start to affect daily life or activities and, more so, if your child/teen suffers from anxiety. Practice being kind, gentle, and compassionate to yourself and to your child/teen.

Consult, Collaborate with Healthcare Professionals:
If your child/teen is suffering from an anxiety disorder or other psychiatric condition, talk to your pediatrician and arrange for a consultation with a mental health professional, if you haven’t done so already. Most treatments for anxiety in children and teens should involve psychotherapy. If your child/teen already is under the care of a mental health professional, work closely with that professional to help your child navigate this unusual time.

Our community is strong and here to support you during this challenging time.

Anxiety and Depression Society of America
New York Times: 5 Ways to Help Teens Manage Anxiety About the Coronavirus