Children may struggle to communicate how they feel during an ongoing health crisis. Here’s how to recognise signs that they’re anxious and best support them.
Give age-appropriate information
Reiterate that COVID-19 is ‘something like the flu or a cold’ in order to make the virus seem familiar to your child. It’s worth adding that most children don’t get this type of cold but that everyone needs to be extra, extra safe because they don’t want other people getting sick. Make it clear that the current situation isn’t forever – and that they’ll be able to see more of their friends and play sport once the virus is under control.
Maintain a routine
You’ve already been forced to adapt to COVID-19 lockdown rules. Now that schools are returning, it’s important your children feel safe and secure. ‘It helps them know what’s to come throughout the day and what’s expected of them,’ says Lo-Mari Victor, an occupational therapist at Mediclinic Worcester.
‘Any change or stressors bring a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability, which can make your child feel anxious. If they have a structured routine, they have something to hold on to that’s familiar and can help them cope with the stress and changes around them.’
Waking time, bedtime, nap time, bath time, mealtime, playtime, family time and homework time all help to set boundaries for your child. ‘These help them understand how the world works and what their place and role is in it, as well as what is unacceptable,’ Victor adds. ‘It helps them to know how to act, to comply with expectations and navigate their way through the day.’
Identify signs of anxiety
As Ronel Groenewald, a psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley and Gariep explains, clues that your child might be suffering from anxiety vary. ‘Some children will bite their nails or fidget; others might become irritable or forgetful. Bed-wetting, loss of appetite and using the toilet frequently are other warning signs.’ Older children, including teenagers, tend to isolate themselves when they feel anxious. ‘Talk to your children about recognising these warning signs and give them ways to respond when signs appear.’
Teach coping skills
Don’t simply tell them not to be anxious. Question them about what they’re feeling – and help them understand the difference between ‘fact-based’ and ‘what-if’ thinking. ‘Remind your child of the practical steps they’re taking to stay safe as well, such as washing their hands frequently and practising physical distancing,’ Groenewald suggests. ‘It’s also useful to help them think of the positive aspects of the situation, such as spending more time together as a family, or [from their perspective] having more screen time than usual.’
Other stress-reducing techniques might include asking them to draw their feelings – or teaching them how to practise deep-breathing techniques. Ensure they stay connected with friends and other family members through video calls and text messages. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if your child displays signs of severe anxiety.