It is perfectly normal for anyone, including children, to feel anxiety when in a global pandemic. It can lead to strong feelings, reactions and changes in behaviour. However, there are steps you can take to help your tamariki, whānau and yourself.
Key points on how to help your child cope with COVID-19 anxiety
- It is normal for tamariki, teens and adults to have strong feelings, reactions and changes in behaviour when faced with uncertainty.
- Children learn from their parent's responses, as well as what they see and hear in the media.
- Limit the amount of information that your child has access to, while still providing them with accurate information that is suitable for their age.
- Allow for whānau/family time and try to keep as many routines in place as possible. This helps provide a sense of safety and security.
How can the COVID-19 environment affect my child?
Your child's age will have an impact on how they respond to the COVID-19 situation and what they need to help them to get through it. If there is a change in your child's behaviour, it could be in response to what is happening around them, such as what parents are saying and what they hear or see in the media.
Younger children are less likely able to understand the news and the relative risk to themselves, their friends and family/whānau. This can cause a sense of panic.
The older a child, the more ‘in tune’ they will be with their emotions and the easier it is for them to put feelings into words.
Children with an existing anxiety disorder or other mental distress
If your child or teen is already experiencing an anxiety disorder or other mental health condition, they may be even more at risk of experiencing heightened distress and worry.
How can I help my child in this COVID-19 environment?
Your response, and that of other adults around your child, influences how your child can cope. Be aware of your own responses and emotional needs so that you can look after your child. Here are some strategies to help children and teens.
Be calm yourself
Children and teens look to the important adults around them to see how worried they should be. Although this can be very difficult, it's important to have and show a sense of calm.
Control access to the media and limit conversations about COVID-19
COVID-19 is on every mainstream and social media platform. This information may not always be accurate. Mixed messages and constantly hearing about the risks of COVID-19 can increase anxiety and worry. It is important to control how much access your child has to the media. Your child's age will also affect how they can interpret the material that they see and hear.
When there is constant talk about something, you focus on it more and then think and worry about it more. This increases your belief that you are more at risk. This belief is unlikely to match the actual risk.
Try and limit access to the news. Turn off alerts on your phones so you are in control of the information you receive. Turn off the radio when the news comes on. Be comfortable and confident in asking your friends, family/whānau or colleagues not to talk about the constant COVID-19 news around you or your loved ones. This will help you worry less and will also help others.
Be honest. Children's imagination and the fear of the unknown can be more overwhelming for children than the reality. Don't focus on the risk aspects of the situation. Talk about the people and services who are working to help control outbreaks and protect people from getting COVID-19. If you do not have answers, then it is OK to tell them that.
Talk and be prepared to answer questions
Ask your child or teen what they think and know. Start talking about the facts about COVID-19. Children ask questions to help them to make sense of the situation. Make sure you have read about the facts around COVID-19. Explain these in a simple way that is appropriate for your child's age, understanding and situation. Let them know that you are available if they have any questions or want to talk more.
Listen and acknowledge how your child is feeling
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Let them know that it is common to feel this way and that others are also having similar feelings. Reassure your child that they are loved, cared for and safe (in whatever realistic or truthful way they are).
Stick to routines and family systems
Stick to routines, including meal times and bedtimes as much as possible (even in self-isolation). This gives a sense of safety and security. Make sure there are family-based activities – not having plans for the day can increase worry and anxiety. Family-based activities will make children and teens feel like they are part of a unit and provide a sense of connectedness or togetherness.
Encourage your child to take action. This can create a sense of control and help if your child is experiencing a sense of helplessness. This might be drawing pictures about how:
- your body fights infection
- eating healthy food is important
- washing hands is essential.
You could ask your kids to teach you how they have learned to wash their hands at school (for example, singing happy birthday) or learn a fun new way together.
Look after yourself
As an adult, it is very important that you look after yourself as well. This can be difficult because your focus is often on the more vulnerable around you. You need to be in the best position possible so you can look after your child - it is about strengthening yourself so you can be strong for your child. Talk to other adults about your feelings and what is going on. Access support systems available to you and try to keep to as many routines as possible.
When should I get professional help for my worried child in this COVID-19 environment?
If your child or teen is already under a counselling or mental health service, then it is important to talk to them about more specific ways to help your child.
You are the best support for your child or teen who is anxious and worried. Most young people's distress will improve with the love, care, and support from their family and whānau. Unfortunately, it's impossible to predict those small numbers of young people who will have significant ongoing emotional difficulties.
Some children will need to have support from professionals. If your child's responses are severe or ongoing, your child may need extra help to cope.
Help from mental health services may be more likely for children or young people:
- with existing mental health difficulties
- who have had previous mental health difficulties
- whose parents are affected by mental health difficulties.
If you are concerned, contact your family doctor who will be able to give you advice about what support is recommended and available.
Where can I go for more information and help for my worried child in this COVID-19 environment?
Healthline 0800 358 5453
For COVID-19 health advice in New Zealand, call 0800 358 5453. Make sure to only call for health-related information on COVID-19.
Call or text 1737
For support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing, you can call or text 1737 for free, anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to talk with a trained counsellor.
Ministry of Health website
Are there any resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to my child?
COVIBOOK is a short book (in a range of languages) to support and reassure children, under the age of 7, regarding COVID-19. This book is an invitation for families to discuss the full range of emotions arising from the current situation. This resource does not seek to be a source of scientific information, but rather a tool based on fantasy. The recommendation is to print this material so children can draw on it.
The author says, “Remember that emotions are processed through repetitive play and stories read multiple times”. The author invites people to share COVIBOOK and help ease kids' anxiety all over the world.
Sparklers – helping tamariki when times are tough Getting Through Together – Whāia E Tātou Te Pae Tawhiti (a joint initiative between All Right and the Mental Health Foundation) has created a range of information to support whānau at home.
- How to talk to your kids about COVID-19
- Making working from home AND learning from home totally doable
- A lil bit of Sparklers for the living room or lawn
- 10 tips on staying grounded and feeling good
- And a handy planner
Other resources from KidsHealth NZ
Content courtesy of KidsHealth NZ which has been created by a partnership between the Paediatric Society of New Zealand (PSNZ) and the Starship Foundation, supported and funded by the Ministry of Health.
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