Anxiety in all of us—including children—is exacerbated by extreme circumstances, such as the one we’re all weathering with COVID-19. Early Childhood Programs Director Ellen Birnbaum and Parenting Center Director Sally Tannen sat down with psychologist Dr. Randi Pochtar, from the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, NYU Langone, for a talk on the topic of children and anxiety one night in February. They share their advice as we all try to adjust to new challenges and help our children cope.
It’s important to begin by establishing that anxiety is a normal, adaptive stress response related to our thoughts. Anxiety actually helps keep us safe, and allows us to accomplish things. But too much anxiety can interfere with our ability to handle everyday life and situations, and this is equally true for children. We are in uncharted territory, so parents' own coping mechanisms are being challenged. But how parents handle a crisis themselves is greatly influential in how children respond.
To determine if your child is feeling especially anxious, evaluate by The Four Ds:
- Dysfunction: How does the anxiety interfere with activities or daily life? Is the anxiety getting in the way of schoolwork? social engagement (even if remotely)? family life?
- Distress: How much distress is it causing your child? Does it take them a long time to recover? Does it disrupt your child’s sleep? Do you have difficulty soothing your child?
- Deviation: How different is this behavior from the way your child normally handles things?
- Duration: How long has the problem been going on?
The Fight, Flight or Freeze response is typical of an anxious moment. To help your child, remind them (and yourself) that their reaction is incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous or wrong. It’s their body doing its job. For example, our anxiety right now is helping us keep ourselves safe by washing our hands, maintaining appropriate distance from others, and not touching our faces.
How can parents help?
- Help your child understand why they might be anxious.
- Provide validation: "It makes perfect sense that you are missing all of your friends and your teacher. You are used to seeing them every day!"
- Read books with stories of bravery and courage. People who are brave can feel scared too, and they push through.
- Provide exposure with you as their safe base.
- Make some adjustments, but don’t be too accommodating. When you make too many changes to accommodate fears, you validate the fears.
- Praise efforts of bravery or trying.
- Set a schedule that allows for downtime.
- Externalize the anxiety. Take it outside of them. Again, right now it might be hard to differentiate worry that is accurate from worry that is unhelpful. Do your best to help your children focus on what they can do to keep safe and let go of worry that is unhelpful.
- Provide relaxation training to help your child calm down when they are feeling anxious. Try “pizza breaths”—smell the pizza through your nose and cool the pizza off by blowing through your lips. Try shaking off the worry. Or have your child picture themself in their favorite place. These tools help a child’s body relax so they can confront the anxiety more calmly.
- Differentiate between the “real alarm” and the “false alarm.”
- Provide a “layout” of what your child can expect in a situation so your child can predict what’s coming.
- Create and follow repetitious routines—they help ground children.
- Check yourself before you respond to your child. Where are your own thoughts? Are you catastrophizing? Manage your own feelings before you attempt to help your child. Children alway look to their parents to see if they are safe and okay.
- Model coping with anxiety. Tell your child how you cope when you feel anxious yourself.
- If your child is really struggling, she may need extra help, and that’s ok. Reach out to a professional.