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COVID-19 Anxiety: Control Your Controllables

Calm your own anxiety about COVID-19 so that you can support your children.

If you’re worried about whether or not you’re doing enough to protect yourself from COVID-19, you’re probably doing enough. Extreme worrying and extreme “prepper measures” won’t be any more effective than making good choices based on realistic guidelines.

  1. Manage your exposure to the news. Binge-watching any news channel for hours on end tends to magnify your perceptions of the actual threat, not contain them. Keep up-to-date on the situation, warnings, precautions, or quarantines that are in effect, but don’t get sucked into the negative fear-mongering that some news reports breed.
  2. Check in with your support network and share your fears and anxieties. When we’re trying to manage anxiety, we have a hard time stepping outside of our own perspective. By speaking to others, you are taking control of your emotions and others may help normalize what you’re feeling as well as share ways that they are dealing with their own concerns.
  3. Keep your focus on the current situation and being present in the moment. When we’re overly invested in worry about the future, we tend not to be our best selves in the present.
  4. Control the “controllables,” so that you’re better prepared to respond to things that are totally beyond your control. And don’t “over prepare” in such a way that you stoke your fear. For instance, don’t stock enough food for a year, stock enough for two or three weeks in case of quarantine. Make sure you have your prescriptions filled and a normal supply of over-the-counter medications, like pain reliever, cough medicine, cold and sinus medicines, and so on.
  5. Follow basic health promotion and protection practices. Wash your hands when you enter your home, don’t put your hands on your face, limit how many times you push your glasses up on your nose. If you touch something that doesn’t belong to you, like handing someone something they left behind, or picking up something off the ground to put in the trash, or touching doorknobs, touching handrails, pushing elevator buttons, and so on, use hand sanitizer immediately afterwards—before you touch your face—if you can’t wash your hands right away.
  6. If you have older family members who live too far away for face-to-face visits, do daily “check-ins” with them to keep communication lines open, in case they show symptoms of the illness. A quick text or phone check-in can provide emotional support to them if they are anxious about possible risks of infection and to you if you are anxious that they may not be taking care of themselves as well as you feel they should.

And If You Have Kids…

Most importantly, keep your own anxiety in check! This is necessary in order to be the best support for your children. When adults are anxious, children pick up on this very quickly and this stirs their own feelings of distress. The key message to your children should be that simple measures that you’ve probably already been encouraging them to do will help them stay healthy. Wash their hands, eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and cough and sneeze into their elbow if they don’t have a tissue handy. And if kids are super worried, make sure you help normalize their fears, but then talk about a time you dealt with another crisis or challenge as a family. This helps kids realize that you and they have the skills needed to handle this new issue.

  • Help your children control what they can control. Help children understand that the illness is caused by germs and that there are things that they can do to protect themselves from the germs.
  • Remind them to wash their hands every time they come into the house.
  • Remind them not to put things in their mouth.
  • Remind them not to share drinks with other people and to not share eating utensils or to eat food that another person has already had some of.
  • Remind them to cover their mouths with their elbows when they cough or sneeze, if they don’t have a tissue handy.
  • Remind them to not use water fountains in public places, to not pick up things off the ground, to not touch things that other people may have handled.
  • Remind them of the connection between healthy food, sleep, hygiene, and health.

For young children: Remind children that the illness is a lot like a “bad cold” or the “flu” and that they can practice the same good health habits that you do to stay healthy. You might talk about “avoiding germs” and tell them it’s the “germs” that are “bad,” not the people who get sick.

Make sure you have a step stool by all the sinks your kids are likely to use to wash their hands. When it’s hard for them to reach the sink, it’s harder for them to do as good a job washing their hands as they might. Sing the ABCs song or Happy Birthday twice with them as they wash their hands.

Kids need to be reminded that you’re there to look after them and you should model health-promoting behaviors to show them that you’re taking care of yourself, too.

Masks can be scary for young children, so talk about why some people are wearing them and how they may use them—not because they have the virus, but because they think that will help them stay healthy.

Reassure children that everyone is trying to do their best to stay healthy and that is why friends may not be able to play with them right now.

For school-aged children: When something major happens and the news is focused on a negative event, kids are going to hear about it from multiple sources, some even passive sources. Preempt their fears by starting a conversation with them about what they’ve heard about the virus and whether they have questions. We need to know what our child knows and what their frame of reference is in order to be as effective in offering support as we want to be.

If your children have been learning about the virus and preventive measures in school, ask them to share with you what they’ve learned and talk about how these measures may look different at home or ways that you’re doing similar things already.

For older children: Teens are savvy and well-informed, so invite deeper discussions about how this virus has influenced the economy, travel, leisure activities, and educational experiences around the globe. Discuss the larger issues related to this type of event beyond the “nuts and bolts” of prevention and treatment.

Stay Calm and Model Prevention Behaviors and Adequate Preparation

Most of us are familiar with the reminder from flight attendants to put on our own oxygen mask before we try to help those around us. This is true in managing our own anxiety and self-care practices. Do all that you can to model the basic health-promoting practices, stock up on a two- to three-week supply of groceries, paper goods, and medicine cabinet needs. Get the laundry detergent, hand soaps, disinfecting wipes and solutions. Most agencies firmly state that we don’t need to prep for a year in quarantine, so don’t go so far overboard that you’re keeping your neighbors from being able to adequately stock their own bare cupboards.

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