Parent talking to worried child

When it comes to anxiety, children aren’t immune. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 32 percent of children have some sort of anxiety disorder. And many more experience daily stress or worries.

Large worldwide events can cause kids to feel anxiety or stress on a personal level.

The global pandemic COVID-19 has caused millions of illnesses and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. The disease is caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

To help prevent the spread of the disease, schools are canceling classes.

On an individual level, uncertainty about the disease and about the future is causing anxiety and stress. And while adults may experience worries themselves, they also should recognize they may need to help the children in their lives.

“It’s important to open a line of conversation and tell them if they have any questions, they should come to you,” says Abigail Schlesinger, MD, chief of Behavioral Science at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “And if you can’t get the answers, then you’ll go to an expert to get the answers.”

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How Do Kids Handle Stress?

The most important thing to recognize when it comes to children and COVID-19 is that they may react to it differently, Dr. Schlesinger says.

“Many children, when they’re stressed, will either not want to deal with it at all and want to play, and that’s OK,” she says. “Others may become more stressed or upset.”

Often, children’s reactions to anxiety-causing situations will include a difference in attitude or behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights some warning signs, which can vary by age:

  • Increased crying or irritation
  • Reverting to old behaviors (i.e. bedwetting)
  • Increased worry or sadness
  • Poor eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability, or “acting out”
  • Trouble with schoolwork/avoiding school
  • Trouble keeping attention or concentration
  • Avoiding favorite activities
  • Health problems such as headaches or body pain
  • Alcohol, tobacco, or drug use

It’s important to keep an eye out for those warning signs or other changes in behavior. It may help you recognize a bigger problem.

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What to Tell Your Kids About COVID-19

While you may feel stressed about COVID-19, it can be important to talk to your children and let them know you’re there for them if needed. Sharing information about what’s happening may help them feel more at ease about the situation.

“If they have questions, they can see you a source of information and a place to resolve questions,” Dr. Schlesinger says.

If you do talk to your kids about COVID-19, you can follow certain steps to try to lower their stress and anxiety.

  • Be available: Just being there and being willing to talk is an important first step.
  • Let them lead: Because not all children react the same way to situations, let them steer the conversation. Let them tell you what they want to know and ask any questions they might have. “You should ask them what they’ve heard and what questions they have,” Dr. Schlesinger says. “We often talk about giving developmentally appropriate answers, but if you let them lead the way and don’t over-answer, then they will let you know where they are in terms of what questions they have and what they’ve heard.”
  • Give accurate information: You should stay up to date on news and updates on COVID-19. Make sure you know the basic facts so you can answer your kids’ questions when they ask. Get your information from reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
  • Don’t over-burden them: While you should be honest with your children and provide information, don’t use them as a sounding board. Giving too many details could accidentally transfer some of your anxiety to them. Try to strike the right balance about what to share and what not to.
  • Create a routine: With COVID-19 causing so much uncertainty, try to make things easier for your children by making a routine for things like diet, exercise, and more. It might help your children to have something they can follow if COVID-19 disrupted their normal schedule.
  • Help them adapt: Teach your kids how they can prevent COVID-19 with tasks like proper handwashing.

For more tips on how you can approach COVID-19 with your kids, contact UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Sources
Manage Anxiety and Stress . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any Anxiety Disorder . National Institute of Mental Health.

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