Talking to kids about the coronavirus is challenging. Information about COVID-19 changes and evolves regularly, and health professionals are continuously studying how the virus impacts our day-to-day lives. While adults can comprehend these changes, licensed mental health counselor Andrew Bellush says many kids cannot. “Children don’t have the coping skills that adults do to deal with stressors like a global pandemic, and it’s our job to help them cope.”
Andrew Bellush, LMHC, works in the child and adolescent program at Genesee Mental Health Center and sees children and adolescents ranging in age from five to 20 years old. He spoke to us about how adults can help kids cope with anxiety related to COVID-19 as they return to school.
Regular back-to-school nerves for kids are often triggered by thoughts of “Am I going to get picked on or bullied? Will I make friends? Will I like my teachers and will they like me?” Those are situations that parents can discuss with their kids because most parents have been in those situations and can lean on their own experiences. The problem with COVID-related anxiety is that everything we learn about COVID is new.
Typically, I break anxiety down mathematically with kids, meaning I say things like:
"Okay, something terrible happened to you in the past. What are the chances of that happening in the future?
What kind of skills do you have now that you didn't have then that might make you less likely to experience that terrible situation and feel more empowered and less anxious?"
That’s a common problem/solution that I deal with. When a kid who already suffers from anxiety is faced with a situation that has brought them some sort of torment in the past, we can analyze that incident and pick it apart together.
With COVID-19, health organizations are still learning about the virus. Information is evolving regularly and we’re all presented with new situations, like returning to school and work while a virus exists that we don’t have a vaccine for. This is an instance where you can’t definitively say to a kid that they're not going to get sick or that their parents aren't going to get sick. Parents and teachers can't reason COVID away.
An important part of dealing with anxiety is feeling empowered. But it's a lot harder to feel empowered when we don’t know what’s going to happen. Even though there are many things we can do to control the spread of the virus, like wearing masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene, we do have less control over this situation than other situations, and that makes kids feel anxious.
Anxiety often hides as anger. One of the first signs of anxiety is a child who appears agitated more often than normal. People often think anxiety is when someone is scared, but if a kid is doing a really good job of hiding their anxiety, that anxiety is likely going to present as anger. They are often angry because they are fighting and battling their feelings.
Other indicators of anxiety include:
The best thing you can do when a child shows signs of anxiety or talks to you about their worries and concerns is to align with what they are saying and validate their feelings. Let them know that their concerns are real and that adults are doing as much as they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep them safe.
It’s important for kids to know that it's okay to feel afraid, but it’s also important for adults to know that it's okay to not always have answers or to know what’s coming. By doing this, kids can see that you’re not trying to wish their fears away or be ignorant of their concerns.
When kids of all ages see that you stand with them and are supportive of their concerns, they can start to try and go about their day and make the most of the situation.
It’s important for kids to see that parents and teachers take their concerns seriously and are honest with what solutions are available, like wearing masks and washing their hands.
I encourage adults not to try and normalize or minimize COVID-19. It’s trendy to call the coronavirus “the new normal” or to talk about it like it isn’t as bad as reported. But that language can be detrimental to a kid who has real concerns and worries about getting infected. Anyone suffering from anxiety needs to have their feelings validated and not talked down to.
As a former teacher, I understand the pressure of teaching 15 or 20, sometimes 25 or 30 kids every day. Teachers play such a big role in the lives of children, and this year teachers are being asked to do more than ever before. Unfortunately, as schools reopen, teachers are faced with the added responsibility of ensuring safety measures are consistently followed throughout their classroom. But the responsibility doesn’t end with teachers. It’s up to school administrations to make sure everyone in school is following guidelines and doing their best to prevent the spread of germs.
Teachers can help ease kids’ fears by having an open and honest conversation with their class and reminding their students that we are all in this pandemic together.
The coronavirus pandemic is such a unique situation in that many teachers are just as anxious and worried about returning to school as kids are, so addressing that and having an open discussion with kids about how everyone can do their part to stay safe is a strategy I would recommend.
We can probably all agree that panic helps no one. Role models in our society, whatever role you play—teachers, parents, guardians, uncles, aunts, grandparents—are now tasked with helping our more vulnerable loved-ones navigate through this pandemic. And vulnerable doesn’t only mean physically vulnerable. Many kids are emotionally vulnerable and will experience anxiety and stress about the present and the future.
With these vulnerable kids, instead of saying things like “it’ll be okay” and “you’ll be fine,” talk about the real, actionable solutions in place to fight the coronavirus.
1. Talk about the health procedures and safety measures like mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing.
2. Explain how these methods have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus.
3. Discuss vaccinations and the work being done to create a vaccine that will protect people, just like the flu vaccine.
4. Focus on the progress being made in New York State and other states that have successfully reduced the infection rate.
5. Talk about the travel restrictions in New York State that prevent people from states with high infection rates being out in public if they travel to New York.
Kids mirror adults’ emotions and movements; it’s one of the ways kids develop. Adults should stay calm while talking to kids about coronavirus. The people of Monroe County, and New York State as a whole, have effectively lowered the COVID-19 infection rate thanks to mask-wearing, hand hygiene, and social distancing. This is something we can be proud of heading into the school year, but also something we can use to motivate us to continue the downward trend of infections.
Using positive language and talking about the progress and actions being taken can empower children and help them see that adults are doing everything we can to keep them safe.
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