A low grade fever used to be a minor cause for concern. A sneeze used to warrant a simple “bless you.” A cough used to be followed by a short “excuse me.” Today, low grade fever, sneezing, and coughing are major causes of concern. It’s no wonder then that people are developing outsized anxieties around regular, everyday things.
Many parents have approached me to discuss what to do with their anxious children now that many of their “irrational” fears have entered the realm of the rational. For instance, two parents have told me that their children do not want to leave the house until there is a vaccine. They fear that they will get infected and infect others. So, what do you do when your children have anxiety about leaving the house during a prolonged pandemic?
- Don’t hide away. It’s very tempting to say, “You know, you are right. We could get sick and therefore we should all stay home.” It’s tempting but it is impractical and ultimately damaging to the child.
- Don’t minimize his fears. Don’t tell your child, “You are going to be just fine! Don’t worry about it.” While of course we all hope this is true and it likely will be true, there are very real fears here that should not be ignored.
- Share your research. Let your child know that you are doing your due diligence – researching the rules, choosing the safest locations, and preparing yourself and your family in advance. If your child understands that you’ve put thought into this and that you are not just winging it, some of his anxiety may ease.
- Expose slowly. If your child is fearful of leaving the house, it would not be helpful to take him to a crowded event the first day out. Instead, think of something very small. Suggest he sit in the backyard for 1 minute, walk the family dog to the sidewalk and back, or even stand by the open window for a few minutes. Then, add a bit to the exposure: sit in the backyard for 5 minutes, walk the family dog 4 houses down, stand outside of the front door for 2 minutes. These exposures will help him understand that he faced his anxiety and nothing terrible occurred.
While the virus still affects our daily lives and our futures are uncertain, we can still recognize that there is a lot of work to be done with ourselves and our children around the anxieties that the pandemic has already created and will continue to create. We hear all the time that children are resilient (and it’s true!) but depending on the stressors of the situation, they (and we) can use a little help in bouncing back.
The first thing to consider is whether this crisis has been traumatic or simply anxiety provoking for us and our children. Trauma is generally caused by violence or a physical threat, though it can also be caused by long-term neglect, abuse, or discrimination. For people who have lost a loved one or who have been confined in abusive situations because of the pandemic, it is quite likely they are experiencing trauma. For those who have lost their regular routines, who go to sleep and wake up with uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring, it is likely that they are experiencing anxiety.
People who are traumatized often exhibit symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and those with PTSD must be helped professionally by those trained to deal with trauma. Therapies such as a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have been proven to relieve the symptoms of those with PTSD. But what about those who are struggling with anxiety now that the world is turned upside down? How can we help our children live in this new world?
- Acknowledge the new normal. We may expect ourselves and our children to go back to acting exactly as they did before Covid-19. That is an unfair expectation. Instead, we need to acknowledge that a lot has changed and therefore adjust our expectations.
- Prioritize. There are so many things that we need to maintain – work, household, relationships, our bodies. Our children have their list too – schoolwork, friends, and healthy activity. Being resilient means moving forward despite setbacks. Therefore, set your priorities and let the other stuff go, perhaps now is not the time to make sure that your child is still practicing piano daily.
- Talk to each other. So many people are suffering in the same way right now. Talk to each other, listen to what they have to say. Empathize with what your children are going through. Ultimately, you will all be stronger as a result.
The reality is that we are all living in uncertain times. The news screams about death and disaster. We hear about friends who have lost loved ones. We may have lost loved ones ourselves. We are all grieving. We are grieving for loved ones and for a time that was and that will likely never be again. It is our choice now how to respond to that uncertainty and grief. We will all respond with anxiety at times – that’s inevitable.
But, maybe we can also choose to respond with kindness. I am reminded of the 49-year-old woman in central Israel who passed away from the virus. Her death left twin four-year-old boys as orphans because her husband had passed away a few years earlier. Within 48 hours, the Israeli public donated more than half a million dollars to care for the boys – this while 1 out of every 4 Israelis is currently unemployed. We don’t need to donate in order to spread kindness; we can do it through connection and through service. As a society, that is how we will survive. After all, kindness is contagious too.