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Anxiety in families and children during COVID-19

COVID-19 has become part of our lives in just a few short months, and the changes, and in some cases, trauma, we have experienced are significant. For many, sickness and death have been the cause of real pain and suffering. So how are families and children of all ages coping with the major life upheavals going on? Many adults are dealing with loss of income, community and emotional support, or lack of alone time since everyone is constantly together. Children and teens, with less experience and capacity for understanding the events of our world, may be struggling in different ways. Losing the routine of attending school, being in clubs, playing with friends and visiting relatives can be unsettling, confusing, and for some — devastating. Anxiety is abundant and real and a significant part of what the people in this world are currently experiencing. 

In its raw sense, anxiety is a helpful, natural response to a perceived danger. Anxiety can alert, prompt, and in some cases, protect us. When anxiety is not managed, however, it can affect both the body and brain, and cause feelings of helplessness and sadness. It can also cause us to be filled with fear and become immobilized. Anxiety during the outbreak of an infectious disease can cause us: concern about our health and that of loved ones, change in financial situation, or loss of the support services we rely on; changes in sleep or eating patterns; difficulty sleeping or concentrating; worsening of chronic health problems; worsening of mental health conditions; increased use of tobacco, and/or alcohol, and other substances.

Children and teens may experience the following: excessive crying or irritation in younger children; returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting); excessive worry or sadness; unhealthy eating or sleeping habits; irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens; poor school performance or avoiding school; difficulty with attention and concentration; avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past; unexplained headaches or body pain.

Fortunately, there are many ways to support children and teens during difficult times. Talk to your children in an age appropriate manner, informing them about what is happening regarding the illness, school closings, canceled church activites, and distancing from friends and families. It all becomes less scary when explained in simple, factual terms. Avoid exposing children to negative news too often. Reassure your child that they are safe and that all the precautions you are taking are designed to keep them safe — masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. Let them know that some things may be different, but you are prepared to keep them safe. Try to keep up with regular routines, despite closures. Create a schedule for chores, learning activities, and relaxing or fun activities. Spend time as a family in meaningful activities, reading together, exercising, playing board games, or watching a livestreamed Mass. As a family, plan a vacation or adventure trip to a location where you are able to maintain social distancing, such as the beach, a local park or hiking trail.

For children with special needs, reactions to changes in routines may be significant. They might have more intense distress, worry or anger than children without special needs because they have less control over day-to-day routines than other people. This may be true for children with physical, emotional or intellectual limitations. Children with special needs thrive when able to follow predictable routines. When those comforting routines are gone, people with special needs may need extra words of reassurance, more and repeated explanations about what is happening, and more comfort and other positive physical contact such as hugs from loved ones.

Eventually, reactions to distress caused by this virus will fade over time for most children. If children continue to have unusual reactions, or just can’t adjust to changes, or if their reactions continue beyond a reasonable time with no signs of returning to their typical behaviors, parents may want to talk to a professional or have their children talk to someone who specializes in children’s emotional needs.

Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise and eat well. Let your children see you connect with friends and family members on Zoom or other social media and that it can be fun, even though it is different. And most importantly, pray together frequently —  pray for health, friends, those who are sick and those less fortunate than you.

Emanuel is coordinator for diocesan Special Needs Ministries.

Find out more

For resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, go to cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.

To contact Catholic Charities, call 703/841-3830.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020