Last week, Westport psychologist Dr. Joshua Eudowe offered insights into why parents must judiciously ground their children in age- appropriate, trustworthy facts in order to prevent irrational fears from developing.
Yet besides having discussions with children, what else can be done to lower their anxiety?
In Part 2, Dr. Eudowe says:
- Explain what the Center for Disease Control does, and why they direct us to do what we do. Talk to children of all ages about the importance of complying with the CDC’s recommendations, and why it’s important to listen to them. Explain the global effort to contain this, including positive facts about treatment initiatives, containment, etc.
- Consider giving children tasks to oversee during this time. For example, assign a child the job of ensuring soap is available near all sinks. Someone may be assigned to organize food or cleaning supplies. Even tasks that aren’t needed can be helpful, like creating a list of movies to watch or researching something online. Giving children responsibilities makes them feel more in control, connected to those who provide safety and security, and involved in the family’s collective effort.
- Don’t be surprised if children aren’t taking this seriously. They don’t have the life experience adults have, or possess the bandwidth for intellectual reasoning that adults do. They can’t pull from prior experiences, nor compare to even slightly similar situations in life to know they’re safe. It’s not their fault they lack the experiences and perspectives that adults have. Most of us see our children as being older than their chronological age. Therefore we expect them to comprehend situations that are nearly impossible. Remember how old they actually are. I often tell parents, “She/he is only 12 years old. Developmentally, their capacity for intellectual processing is limited – despite how mature they seem.” Even though a child may appear sophisticated enough to comprehend the gravity of situations, developmentally they simply can’t decipher what’s needed to avoid irrational thinking.
- While common for parents to talk to their children as a family, be mindful that conversations with different age groups can sometimes be inappropriate. Don’t sit down with your middle schooler alongside your high schooler to discuss facts or expectations. Questions and fears may arise during conversations that could prove troublesome to younger members of the family. Also, discuss with older siblings the importance of not saying things to instill fear in younger ones. It’s a point that must be stressed with consequences. This is a time for families to work together.
- Remain consistent for your children. Consistency, particularly now, is critical. An inconsistent parent drives a child towards a state of uncertainty. An example most of us can relate to is screen time. Parents may bend rules and say, “Okay, but just this time” to avoid a frustrating confrontation. This leads to children remaining in the “unknown” – not being sure whether consequences will be enforced or ignored. I tell parents, “when the door opens, children need to know who’s walking in. When they don’t, anxiety will develop.” While parents are certainly allowed to have bad days, remain as consistent as possible.
- Divorced parents must work hard to communicate to ensure consistency during transitions and visitation. Despite the difficulties that arise in these situations, children must come first. Creating environments that promote similar expectations during traumatic times is critical to avoiding excess anxiety. Transitioning to the other parent’s home is already difficult, and often a process filled with anxiety. An inconsistent parent who verbally or behaviorally devalues the rules of the other home will intensify irrational thoughts, and can make children feel responsible for their own well-being – something to avoid at all costs. Remember that children continue to see both parents as their “parents,” although you may not. Neither parent should ever speak negatively about the other, or behave in a way that invalidates the other. Doing so will cause children to worry for the other parent’s safety, resulting in increased difficulty in transitioning, and likely significant behavioral problems such as anger, disobedience, avoidance, and an unwillingness to continue to transition.
- Take a break from the news. We all need to step away from television and online media from time to time. While it’s vital to stay informed, adults and children can easily become overwhelmed and transition into irrational thinking. When this occurs it’s time to play a game, watch a movie, do something fun, and ground ourselves in positive thinking.
As parents, we constantly model for our children. Remember: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Remain calm. Carefully and attentively listen to your children’s concerns. Don’t be engaged in other activities while your child is sharing fears or asking questions. Don’t be on your phone while yelling at them to get off theirs. Listen to them. Validate their concerns by saying things such as, “I can see how scared you are, and I know it doesn’t feel good,” or “There are many things we don’t know right now, but we’re doing everything to be safe.” Don’t invalidate their fears by saying things like, “You have nothing to worry about.” It’s not true, and they know it. You will become a less trusted source for information.
Symptoms to watch out for during any traumatic experience.
Avoidance. This is the number one challenge in treating trauma. People don’t want to discuss or even think about frightening events. Therefore, adults and children avoid discussions. In terms of communication, be careful (or ask a professional) if your gut tells you that your child is avoiding a conversation, rather than merely being uninterested. A parent’s intuition is usually correct; trust it. Either way, conversations should occur frequently.
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- General and/or separation anxiety
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Withdrawing from others
- Changes in appetite
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling disconnected
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Overly fatigued
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
If your child exhibits several of these signs to a point where they interrupt normal functioning, seek professional help as soon as possible. Unlike some other mental health conditions, trauma can intensify quickly. Left untreated, it can worsen considerably. The COVID-19 pandemic will create enormous amounts of fear and anxiety, in all of us. Early intervention is the key to moving past this global pandemic. When the virus is eventually contained and treated, the wake of emotional dysregulation will grow exponentially. Now is the time for proactive measures.
With COVID-19 spreading at a rapid pace, many therapists are working remotely. While not ideal, even phone or video sessions can be invaluable in preventing symptoms from worsening. Please seek professional guidance; don’t wait until your child exhibits significant symptoms.
At least 5 young people in Fairfield County have been hospitalized because of suicidal thoughts related to anxiety during the coronavirus crisis. If you or someone you know is having a difficult time, reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. or click here for additional resources.)