There’s no denying that the past 18 months of the coronavirus has been draining on all of us. But what about the impact it has on young children? This week, I’ve invited paediatrician and author of Parenting in a Pandemic, Dr Kelly Fradin to share her insights on helping young kids with anxiety.
By Kelly Fradin, MD
With the coronavirus pandemic, everyone has been under such stress. Though paediatricians did not see as much cold and flu this winter, we have seen big increases in visits of children suffering with anxiety and depression.
The reasons for this are obvious. Our environment changed and we’re more isolated and removed from our normal routines. In many families the consequences of the pandemic have left less attention for the youngest children because of school closures, hesitancy to allow caregivers due to COVID and limitations due to the financial impacts of the pandemic.
3 Things to Know About Helping Young Kids with Anxiety:
Rather than panic, I’d like to encourage parents to be prepared with some mental health first aid. Whether pandemic induced or a part of everyday life, many children have times when anxiety feels overwhelming. These tips will help parents know how to deal with uncomfortable feelings of anxiety in their kids.
Older children and adults will often tell you when something is wrong, but younger children often lack the vocabulary and maturity to identify and communicate emotions like worry. Children who are anxious will often withdraw, refusing to participate in activities. Children may be physically clingier than normal or complain of new specific fears. They may misbehave or tantrum. Children may show sleep disturbances, potty training setbacks, or changes in appetite. Children can have difficulty focusing or complain of headaches or tummy aches.
It can be very stressful as a parent to imagine or accept that your child feels anxious, but identifying the struggle is the first step towards helping your child feel better.
Talking about feelings
Many of us have trouble finding the words to talk to children about their emotions, but sometimes you can help a child come out of their shell by asking them to describe their worries or draw a picture of how they feel. Children’s books like Ruby Finds a Worry or Scaredy Squirrel can help start conversations about worries.
We want our children to know that anxiety is useful and adaptive, it helps us prepare for challenges. Even though our heart races or we are breathing fast, anxiety is not dangerous. But worries can be too much and get in the way of our lives. We can learn techniques to take charge and “talk back” to our worries and ask for help to make ourselves feel better.
First steps to help kids with anxiety:
The first thing I always focus on with an anxious child is sleep. Unfortunately worry can lead to a terrible cycle of worsening sleep, impaired coping and leading to more anxiety. A good night’s sleep is a powerful tool to promote children’s mental health.
At a time when the child is not in distress, it’s great to introduce coping skills. A child can learn breathing exercises, positive self-talk, distraction and other ways to control difficult feelings. Practicing these tools will help even adults to manage their anxiety and feel better.
Some children will need professional help from a counselor, therapist, or physician. Though a lot of families have been doing it all at home, please remember that help is still available virtually or in person. Sometimes children connect in a different way with a new voice or a voice carrying authority. Children can confide things in a health professional they may not tell their parents. Since it can take some time to find a good mental health team, I always encourage families to make an appointment if they are concerned. If things improve you can always cancel it.
Hopefully now you have a sense of the first steps for what you can do as a parent to help your child through anxious feelings.
About Doctor Kelly Fradin
A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Kelly Fradin is a paediatrician and mother of two from NYC. Her career has focused on children with chronic medical conditions and school health. As an advocate for children, she wrote Parenting in a Pandemic which provided calm, realistic, and evidence-based advice to families during this stressful time. You can find more parenting tips on her Instagram account @adviceigivemyfriends or by subscribing to her newsletter.