COVID-Related Anxiety in Kids: Why It’s Happening and How to Help
It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone – adults and kids alike.
When the pandemic first started, we were all worried about getting the illness. That sentiment certainly still exists for some, in particular people who are immunocompromised and the elderly. However, it seems we have now transitioned into a more generalized anxiety related to COVID-19, but not necessarily about contracting it. And the unfortunate reality is that our kids are feeling the same way.
The Situation: More Kids Have Anxiety Nationwide
We’re seeing more kids with anxiety nationwide. More psychology visits. More visits to the Emergency Department for suicide attempts. In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in kids 10 years and older.
I don’t mention this to cause panic in parents, but rather to heighten our sense of awareness. Our kids have suffered much in the way that adults have, and we need to watch and take note (more on that later). While we don’t have an exact link to causation at this time, we certainly can make some guesses.
Why Kids Have COVID-Related Anxiety
We’re noticing that kids are behaving in ways that are similar to how we act after experiencing significant loss. And I think this makes sense. They have missed out on nearly two years of normalcy. Two years of attending school in a typical way. Two years of uncertainty and disbelief. They’ve missed major milestones and activities, such as graduation, school dances, field trips and sporting events.
Not to mention the developmental impacts of virtual school. Kids learn by interacting with others and through hands-on projects. They develop socially by having to navigate relationships and work things out. Their sense of well-being, especially for teens, is tied to their peers and achievements. And now that some of these activities have started up again, many are anxious about returning to them, because they’re out of practice.
So what can we as parents do about it? I recommend the following:
How to Help Kids with COVID-Related Anxiety
Resiliency is the ability to manage and bounce back from a stressor. Without social interactions and activities, these skills have been sitting on a shelf. They need to be dusted off and used. This will take work and time. It can start by explaining that they have the ability to do it – they can do hard things. Perhaps remind them of another time when they worked through something difficult. Have them focus on what’s within their control and let go of what isn’t. Read this previous post for more tips on teaching resiliency.
Promote basic brain health
The last couple of years have wreaked havoc on our basic brain health, and this impacts how we think and feel. We’ve gotten out of our normal routines, sleeping patterns and healthy meals. I recommend getting back to a daily structure. Have a normal bedtime. Engage in regular physical activity. Eat meals together. It doesn’t have to be every day or even at dinner, but children who eat meals with their families are often more resilient than those who don’t eat with their family.
Nurture parent-child connections
Conveying a sense of connection with your children is so important for their sense of well-being and willingness to open up to us. Just hang out together and have fun on a consistent basis. You don’t have to have big important discussions. This will plant the seed for them to trust you and confide in you when they need help.
Take care of yourself
This goes back to the oxygen mask metaphor – when you’re on a plane, you need to put your oxygen mask on before you help someone else put theirs on. The same goes for mental health. It is difficult to help someone else when you’re not taking care of yourself. I realize this is easier said than done, but start taking small steps. Ask another adult to partner with you in making self-care a priority.
Notice changes in your child
Basic changes in your children can indicate that they are having a difficult time. Be on the lookout for changes in sleep, eating, appearance, academics, energy level, activities, and social interactions. Pay attention to their social media accounts. When you notice any of these differences, ask them about it. Say something like, “I’ve noticed you’re eating less than normal”. Or, “you’re not hanging out with Suzie as much”. Follow up with, “let’s talk about that”. Or, “have you noticed that too”? They may not be open up right at that moment, but you’ve opened the door and it may lead to more conversations. And if you’re concerned, say so.
Get help when needed
It is okay to ask if they’ve had thoughts of suicide or wanting to die. Parents sometimes worry that they will plant those thoughts in their heads, but this just isn’t the case. This allows them to share concerning thoughts with us. By asking difficult questions, parents open the door for children to discuss difficult topics. Children who talk about these feelings with trusted adults are at less risk of acting on them.
If you notice significant changes in your children, or if they talk about wishing they were dead or having thoughts of killing themselves, never hesitate to contact a professional. You can reach out to our Pediatric Intake Response Center at 513-636-4124, our Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology at 513-636-8107, or refer to a list of contacts on our mental health and resources page.