Supporting your child through a period of uncertainty.
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
In all honesty, I wanted to avoid adding to the stream of Covid-19 coverage as I believe it adds to the anxiety that the nation is currently experiencing. However, if having some knowledge along with tips helps to alleviate some stress and anxiety, I am here for it. I will talk briefly about the psychology behind anxiety. Then, I will focus on tips to support your child through any period of uncertainty; this can be useful beyond what is currently happening in the world.
Simply put, a worry is a state of being troubled about potential problems. We tend to worry about things that are yet to happen. Worries tend to only affect our mood. When they last for a long period, they start to affect behaviours and the choices we make. This is the beginnings of anxiety. Anxiety can be described as a heightened state of fear, worry and panic. It is important to note that anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms. So in our children anxiety can manifest through stomach aches, going to the toilet more than usual or have headaches. They might also display anxiety induced behaviours such as nail biting.
There is usually a cycle that occurs with anxiety. The individual starts with an anxious thought “What if I get Corona Virus?” These thoughts then evoke a feeling such as fear. The individual then feels the need to act on this feeling (and thought) as a protective measure. In children, this can be being extremely clingy to a parent or seeking constant reassurance. They can refuse to engage in activities or display tantrums and challenging behaviour around the very thing they are anxious about. In the mind of the anxious individual, their behaviours are helping the anxiety but in reality it could be feeding the anxiety e.g. panic buying. As humans we struggle with uncertainty because it can feel threatening. No one reacts well to feeling under threat. Our children are no different. So how do we teach our children to cope with uncertainty and change?
Firstly, you have to be that role model. Our children are watching us; they are quite expert at picking up on non-verbal language. If you choose to watch the news or have discussions about Covid -19 in their presence, please be mindful of your reactions. Calling out “oh my God!” or shouting at the TV is not a helpful response. If you are having the conversations, make sure you differentiate between facts and feelings. Blanket statements like “We are all going to get it.” “So many people have died from it!” “Our country is doing nothing to protect us.” are not helpful to your own state of mind. They are also not helpful to your children. You could rephrase that to “I don’t feel safe with the current decision taken by the UK and I wonder what I could do to feel safe.”
Other situations where you might help your child differentiate between fact and feeling is when they are expressing their thoughts about the first day of school. They might say “I won’t know anyone and they will all hate me.” you could help them rephrase it to “I won’t know anyone yet!” emphasis on yet and talk them through ways they can change that fact. You could also help them rephrase to “I feel scared that I won’t make any friends” then you can help them come up with a ‘brave plan’ to conquer the fear. For example say hello and smile at 3 different people.
Secondly, if ever there was a time to introduce the power of deep breathing for relaxation to our children, now is the time. Deep breathing on a regular basis does wonders for your state of mind and well-being. It stimulates the right things in our body to improve our mind and body. When your child is in particular state of panic or anxiety, you want to reduce the language you are using; the brain is unable to process it when it is in a heightened state of panic. Instead of talking, get your child to practice slowing their breathing down, extremely slow breaths in and slow breaths out. For younger children you can use visual aids like feathers get them to gently blow that. Or you could tell them to make an O shape with their lips and gently blow on to your hands.
Thirdly, get your child to be in the moment. Often a worry or an anxiety is about something that is yet to happen. Bring them back to present by getting to their level, making eye contact, and say reassuring phrases about the present. “You are not ill now” “I am smiling at you because we are ok” Repeat your phrase in a gentle and reassuring tone until you feel it’s been heard. Back up your phrase with evidence – “we have washed our hands to keep us safe.” This applies to other moments for uncertainty, help them come to the present and to focus their thoughts on what they know not what they think.
An activity that can help ground them is getting them to use their senses as a calming activity. Get them to name
• 5 things they can see
• 4 things they can touch
• 3 things they can hear
• 2 things they can smell
• 1 thing they can taste
And I like to add 1 thing that you know for sure is true about life. E.g. “Mummy will always love you!”
Finally, teach them to develop coping strategies. Developing coping strategies is great for their independence, well-being, resilience and confidence. A coping strategy for a health pandemic might be washing hands and following health and hygiene regulations. It might also be avoiding reading too much about the pandemic and it can be preparing for self isolation in a calm and measured way. Ultimately you want to foster a problem solving attitude in your child. Get them to name what the fear/worry is. Now get them to see it as a problem they have to try and solve. To solve a problem we have to break it down into small manageable steps. For example, if your child is nervous about a school play. They could start by performing it in front of the mirror or to their teddies, then to mum and dad, to extended family and finally outdoors (a garden or park). This is all to build towards the actual performance. The key is going at your child’s pace and just taking one step at a time.
What I would like to leave you with, is the phrase “This too shall pass.” It may be stormy and uncertain for a while but we are our children’s anchor and we can be their center and soft place to land amidst the uncertainty.