With normal life upended, it is natural that many children are feeling worried, even if they aren’t normally predisposed to anxiety. There have been reports that some children are so fearful that they won’t leave the house, even for a short walk.
This may not be a time when parents have all the answers to their children’s questions, worries and concerns, but there is still a huge amount they can do to keep worries under control and their spirits up.
If young children are smart enough to ask a difficult question, you must answer honestly
By the age of six or seven, children have critical reasoning skills. “It’s very difficult as a parent to not be able to answer a question. “The advice is, have open conversations with your children, let them lead, let them ask what they want, be as honest as you can. You might say, ‘When you were little you were vaccinated against measles. Vaccinations protect you against catching illnesses. This is a new illness and doctors and scientists are working hard to try to make a vaccine. But, meanwhile, we have to be careful that we don’t spread it.’ ”
There are useful online resources for children as young as three. Matt Lucas’s Baked Potato Song, which explains why we’re washing hands. You can find it on Spotify and YouTube. Axel Scheffler, the illustrator of The Gruffalo, has created a digital book about coronavirus, above, suitable for children aged five to nine, published by Nosy Crow and free on its website (nosycrow.com).
If your 12-year-old is too scared to go outside, help them to get out
A University of Oxford study, Covid-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children in Epidemics, led by Professor Cathy Creswell, who specialises in anxiety in young people, surveyed 1,500 parents and found that 17 per cent of 4 to 10-year-olds and 8.5 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds were frightened to leave the house. Some of them wouldn’t even leave their rooms.
Our aim is to help children to learn that we can go outside in ways that keep us safe and other people safe, Creswell says. “If we let them stay inside, we let children’s fears persist rather than giving them an opportunity to learn something different.
Reassure them with facts — but not when they’re highly emotional
Successfully managing your child’s fears about going out requires a two-pronged approach. Psychologist Byron says: “You need to address the physiological impact of anxiety — slow the breathing, bring down the heart rate, move to allow all this adrenaline running through the body to work itself through. You also need to address its psychological impact by reminding yourself of factual information so you can calm irrational, fear-based thoughts. Timing is critical, however. Don’t try to talk sense into them when they are highly emotional. “If a child is in meltdown and a parent is trying to rationalise or getting agitated with them, that won’t work.”
Save the evidence-based information for when they are calm. What you say depends on your child’s developmental level and personality more than their age.
Have a routine, but let your teenager have a lie-in sometimes
Routine is a key part of anxiety management. At weekends we can get up late. But Monday to Friday we get up, have a shower, make our bed, have breakfast, do what we need to. There has to be structure and certainty, otherwise anxiety creeps in.”
The question to ask yourself is: “How can we have as harmonious a household as possible?” The biggest pressure on families is juggling work and childcare, “so if your child’s not up until ten, it might be quite handy”. Not having overly high expectations about what children are achieving, while knowing what you can tolerate, will help everyone to get along.
Indeed, rousing children aged 12 to 15 by 10am, but letting those aged 16 to 18 sleep until 11 or 12 if they want to. “If it’s going to cause a lot of conflict to get your child in bed by a certain time, once they’re 16, 17, 18, that might not be the battle parents want to have at the moment.
It’s important to be silly: squeeze moments of fun into your day
We’re not being insensitive when we joke with our children about Covid, or let eccentricity reign. We’re trying to lighten the mood. As parents we set the emotional weather. As Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist notes, a three-year-old doesn’t understand about deadly viruses, “but they will be able to pick up if the adults around them are scared”.
In her study, Creswell asked parents to respond to the statement “All of my conversations with my child about Covid-19 are serious”. She says: “Twenty per cent of people agreed. Essentially 50 per cent of people disagreed and 28 per cent were in between. Only 2 per cent strongly disagreed. On the whole, people use humour as a way to cope.”
Discourage young children from worrying about others too much; it’s not their responsibility
Creswell’s study on the impact of the pandemic on family life, relationships and mental health is continuing, but among its initial findings was that many children were worried about others, not themselves. Fifty-three per cent of 4 to 10-year-olds were worried about relatives or friends catching the disease, a fear shared by 41 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds. (Only 32.6 per cent of 4 to 10-year-olds and 22.4 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds were afraid of catching it themselves.)
Creswell says: “Be clear about children’s responsibilities and where the limits of those lie. Let them know about all the people who are working really hard to keep us safe — scientists, politicians, the health service — so they don’t feel it’s their responsibility.
Don’t minimise your child’s fears
Try to understand what’s driving your child’s particular fears, Creswell says. “Start with open questions. Acknowledge their fears, don’t minimise them. You wouldn’t say, ‘Don’t be silly.’ We can acknowledge that the thoughts and the worries they’re having are frightening, but may not reflect what will happen. You’d take the opportunity to correct any misunderstanding. For example, you might say, ‘We know that most people get very mild symptoms and recover within a few weeks.’ ”
Krause says: “Remember that young teens are avidly consuming social media and there’s a lot of stress-fuelling misinformation out there.” Teach them to be aware that social media may be at its peak rumour-mongering during the pandemic and to take notice of how they feel when they’ve been scrolling. Better to do this than try to put limits on their screen time, which will be impossible to impose.
Don’t turn off the news when they are around
It is important to notice how they respond when you have the news on, and let that be your guide to how you set limits. Creswell, whose children are 12 and 16, says: “I do have the radio on with the news at certain times — breakfast, lunchtime and when we’re making dinner — but not running all through the day. At those times it is on, I wouldn’t switch it off if my children came into the room because that might give them cause for alarm. But my children are quite laid-back and old enough to listen and have conversations about it.”
Yet even for children who are worried by the news, Creswell doesn’t recommend a ban. “Once or twice a day, and limiting it to times when you’re available to have conversations about it, would be sensible,” she says. “We wouldn’t encourage parents to actively hide information. If children then come across it in some other way, it means they’re particularly unprepared. Use the information on the news as an opportunity for conversation to help children to get an understanding of what’s going on, and to help correct any misunderstandings.”
Guide teenagers towards altruism
Without school and university, many older teenagers seem lost. “Anxiety grows in empty spaces,” Byron says. Be thoughtful if your older child is falling into bad habits. They are struggling with the anxiety of multiple uncertainties, but you still need to be a parent. “Rather than have a go at your 17-year-old about drinking alcohol and going to sleep at 4am, you might say, ‘We understand why you’re doing this, but it can’t continue. This isn’t good for your wellbeing.’ Do maintain parental authority. We shouldn’t think this is a complete negotiation. This isn’t abnormal; this is the current normal.”
As with all children, structure and routine are key to anxiety management, but don’t infantilise older teenagers by being prescriptive, Byron says. Autonomy is as important for them now as ever. Encouraging them to develop their own timetables and strategies will help to build emotional resilience (part of which is being able to adapt to challenging circumstances). “The less structure you have, the more time you’ve got to worry and ask questions that begin with ‘what if’ that absolutely can’t be answered at the moment.”
Encouraging teenagers to think beyond themselves — whether clapping for the NHS or raising money for a local charity — can also alleviate anxiety. “It isn’t a bad idea for our more comfortable, privileged children who are finding it hard to get a sense of perspective,” Byron says. “One aspect of resilience is about comparing and contrasting our anxiety against other challenges we don’t have to face, but other people do. It helps to decatastrophise and give us a sense of humility in the face of worry, and that can be very helpful.”
Stay positive: we are teaching a new generation to keep calm and carry on
“Captain Tom Moore has to have a knighthood,” Byron says of the 99-year-old former British Army officer who has raised more than £28 million for the NHS. Do alert children to all the kindnesses and community responses to this pandemic, she says. “Let children see the good bits of humanity.”
Parents might look at the upsides for their children too. “As a species we are adaptable — we’ve survived this far,” Byron says. It’s helpful for us to think of this situation in broader terms than physical health for ourselves and our children. “It’s about adaptability and resilience — not just about eventually being able to have vaccines and immunity, but about emotional and psychological resilience; understanding that life can be random and unpredictable.”
Stoicism is a good quality, she adds. “In mental-health services there has been a concern that children are so overprotected and, because we live in a risk-averse world, while the physical-health outcomes are better, the mental-health outcomes aren’t as good because children aren’t being given the opportunity to develop resilience by managing and taking risks. In some ways this is an opportunity to enable us to help children to develop that resilience, that adaptability, that way of being able to roll with the punches — to keep calm and carry on.”