Children, Teens, and Anxiety
Ten easy ways parents can help.
Posted Apr 26, 2020
Overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically magnified the collective anxiety of an already restless world. As adults attempt to navigate the stormy seas of uncertainty, children and teens are also suffering greatly, leaving many parents and caregivers wondering what they can do to help.
What are kids worried about? A lot!
- Getting infected/sick
- Loved ones getting infected/sick
- Dying—self and loved ones
- Whether things will go back to normal
- Family separation/conflict
- Losing friendships/connections
- Parent/family losing wages/job
- Falling behind in school or losing skills
- Missed milestones—birthdays, school dances, graduation, etc.
- Food/housing insecurity
- Being shunned, shamed, targeted
- What will happen after the pandemic—to school, relationships, the world
- Worried about their own scary thoughts and feelings
- Losing control
Here are 10 easy ways parents and caregivers can help their child/teen struggling with worry and anxiety.
1. Be Aware of Changes
- Academic/social functioning—this includes unexpected drop/disinterest in school performance and/or social connection
- Behavior (e.g., starts avoiding people/things, more clingy/needy, seeks constant reassurance)
- Mood (e.g., fearful, tearful, irritable)
- Somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomach aches)
2. Normalize and Accept
- Normalizing makes kids (and adults) not feel alone/defective
- Help your child/teen accept that: Life has unknowns; Not knowing is uncomfortable; Discomfort is not fun but can be tolerated
- Reassure them that all this is normal and OK
3. Educate and Empower
- Remind your child/teen that in life there are things we can control and things we cannot. (So many of us suffer unnecessarily trying to control things that we simply don't have control over.)
- Teach your child/teen to put their worries into two categories: (a) Problem solve and focus attention on “Things I can control” (b) Acknowledge and let go of “Things I cannot control”
If worry/anxiety gets out of control ...
- At the first/earliest sign, think about or do something totally different to disrupt the downward spiral of worry/anxiety (e.g., change the topic of conversation, physically move to another space, engage in an entirely different activity).
- Note: This is only a temporary fix and not a long-term solution as it can become another form of avoidance.
5. Model Healthy Emotional Regulation
- Secure the parent/caregiver oxygen mask first!
- Ask yourself: How is my own anxiety level? In what ways might I be communicating or reinforcing worry to my child/teen? How can I model healthy anxiety management so that my child/teen can follow suit?
- Remember, anxiously-inclined children/teens are more sensitive to small, indirect, and non-verbal cues
6. Monitor News Consumption
- How much is appropriate? That depends on the combination of your child/teen’s age, temperament, curiosity, and exposure to others.
- Strike a balance between denial/avoidance on one end and overreaction/flooding on the other.
- Adjust as needed, including as your child/teen’s curiosity or exposure changes.
7. Talk to Your Kids
- Find out what might be troubling them. Be gentle in your approach. Think about planting seeds instead of pressuring them to spill the beans in one sitting.
- Discuss and co-construct expectations about schoolwork, chores, screen time, etc. When they have a say, they have more skin in the game.
- Hear them out. What do they think about the pandemic, staying at home, virtual/no school, no in-person playdates, mom’s cooking, brother’s unsolicited feedback, etc? Venting is an easy and effective outlet to detox any buildup of worries.
- Don’t be scared to broach topics that your kids might be curious about or have been exposed to. Avoidance reinforces, not protects, your child/teen from fear and anxiety.
8. Challenge Anxious Thinking
- Confront and challenge worries head-on.
- “What are you worried about?”
- “What’s the probability that will happen?”
- “Where is the evidence?”
- “Even if that was to happen, what can you/we do?”
- “Will worrying about it constantly help? What can you do instead?”
9. Get Creative and Make It Your Own
- A personalized approach is always better.
- Flip the script and let your kid be the boss—have them help solve others' problems. Getting the worry outside of your child/teen helps them gain perspective.
- Create something tangible. Maybe a coloring/cartoon book (e.g., The Tale of Scaredy Cat and Brave Tiger, The Anxious Mind and Wise Mind)
- Get the family involved. No one likes to do anything uncomfortable or challenging alone. Come up with a family challenge (e.g., device-free zones/times for children and adults).
10. Ground in Overall Health
- Strengthen factors that improve overall health and anxiety—good sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress management
- Implement a structure that makes it easier to practice healthy habits
- Strike a balance (e.g., offset serious news or tedious school work with funny news or silly activities)
- Strive for flexibility regarding expectations, routines, and plans
- Cultivate hope, courage, faith to counter the forces of worry, anxiety, and fear
The above recommendations are intended for informational purposes and not a substitute for professional assessment or treatment. In the case that your child/teen’s symptoms are significant in frequency and severity, including notable impairments to their functioning, please seek the advice of a professional licensed psychotherapist.