How to Help a Child With Anxiety During a Pandemic

Published April 9, 2020
mom talking to upset little child

If you have a little one who is worried, try these real-world tips for helping a child with anxiety during Covid-19 and other emergency situations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 7.1% of US children have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and even ordinarily calm kids may struggle with worry in challenging times. However, with your help, children can keep these emotions from overwhelming them and build resilience to handle this and many other challenges.

Ask and Listen Actively About Anxiety

Children's anxiety can take many forms, including stomach aches, nightmares, acting out, and more. According to Harvard Health, giving kids a way to talk about how they feel can help take some of the power out of the emotions. When you see your child appearing anxious, ask him or her about it. Wait while your child thinks about what to say. It's okay if it's silent for a while. Your child will know you are listening. When your child does answer, try to repeat some of what he or she said to show you understand. This powerful tool of active listening will make your child feel heard.

Name and Externalize Pandemic Worry

Part of the power of anxiety is that it can be present without children even knowing. It feels big and scary, but if you call attention to it and make it something external, it will lose some of its power. You can even give the pandemic anxiety a silly name like "Bobo" or "Blob." That way, when Bobo shows up, your child can be more aware and can share about it.

Consider What You Share About Covid-19 and Pandemics

Many people have a tendency to share too much or too little information with kids, and it can be a difficult balance to strike. How much you choose to share may depend on your child. For some kids, information is calming. For others, it's overwhelming. A pandemic comes with a lot of statistics and news events, and these may or may not be appropriate for your child. If you're in doubt, observe how your child seems to feel before and after you share the details. Additionally, it's a good idea to set a time to discuss the pandemic and keep the rest of the day clear of this information.

Manage Your Own Anxiety

Children pick up on the feelings of adults, according to the New York Times. It's important that you manage your own anxiety about the pandemic so you can help kids feel at ease. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them. These relaxation techniques may help.

Make Time for Physical Activity

Kids need to move, even if they don't feel like it at a given time. Getting some exercise in any form may help them relax. In a pandemic, your usual access to physical activity may be limited, since sports and swimming lessons and other organized activities are put on hold to preserve social distancing. Make your own indoor or backyard activities, such as playing on a swing set or trampoline, jumping on couch cushions, playing backyard games, and more.

brother and sister playing on the swing

Practice Mindfulness During a Pandemic

Just like adults, children can respond well to mindfulness practice during a pandemic or other stressful situation. Try progressive relaxation, in which you instruct the child to relax one muscle group at a time. Or try an even simpler deep breathing technique that kids can do on their own:

  1. Lie on your back the floor or a bed.
  2. Place your hands on your tummy.
  3. Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  4. Feel your tummy rise up and down with each breath.

Find a New Normal Routine

Routine is reassuring for kids, but routines are severely disrupted in a pandemic. The key is to create a new routine for the new normal. Schedule distance learning time, meal times, outdoor play, and more. Post the schedule on the refrigerator or in another easy-to-notice location. Adding pictures can also help younger kids keep track of what's happening.

Choose Healthy Distractions

Sometimes, everyone just needs a break from thinking about the crisis at hand. Distractions don't have to involve tons of time on a tablet. There are lots of fun ways that can help kids get their mind off the pandemic. Try one of these ideas:

  • Family movie night
  • Reading a favorite book series out loud
  • Playing a board game
  • Making art
  • Doing fun craft projects
  • Learning new hobbies
Family watching movies

Let Them Help the Family

There's lots to do during a pandemic, including projects to protect your family and things to help make the world better. If you're volunteering during the pandemic, let the kids help out. They can make masks with you or create donations for homeless shelters. Kids can also help plant and take care of a garden so you can have some more control over your family food supply. They can help wipe down groceries and even cook meals. Working for the greater good will help give them a sense of control over what may seem like an out-of-control situation.

Teach Real-World Resilience During a Pandemic

Educators and parents have long understood the importance of resilience for kids, and a pandemic offers a real-world way to teach those skills. During this time of challenge, you'll be giving your kids the tools, relaxation techniques, and experience they need to manage their anxiety and face other difficult times in life.

How to Help a Child With Anxiety During a Pandemic