No matter their age, this may be a difficult time for children and young people, says Liz Connor.
With the closure of extra-curricular clubs, social distancing measures in place and changes to everyday routines, children can feel more anxious than usual.
It’s a worrying time for everyone, and while some children may react to anxieties around coronavirus immediately, others may not show difficulties until later on.
Child psychology experts reveal some of the key signs which may mean a child is struggling with Covid-related anxiety, and how parents can support and take care of their family’s mental health.
What are the key signs a child might have anxiety?
“Anxiety in children can present itself in lots of different ways, but a key behaviour that parents usually note is a change in mood, where their child may appear less cheerful and more pre-occupied,” says Dr Hamilton McBrien, child and adolescent psychiatrist and the medical director at Priory Roehampton.
“Their worries can impact on their experience of fun and sense of humour, and sleep can be disturbed too, especially with difficulty getting off to sleep as a result of worried pre-occupation.”
Alongside this, McBrien says you should keep a watchful eye on mealtimes, as appetite can be reduced when a child is feeling anxious, and they may express feelings of an upset stomach with no apparent cause.
Children might tell you directly about their worries, but McBrien says that it’s good to note they often may not, as they may be concerned that talking about their worries will only serve to make them feel worse.
“They may also be worried about upsetting you or others by mentioning the topic that is a worry to them,” adds McBrien.
“They might show avoidant behaviour too, particularly about going out and mixing with others, and equally they may try to prevent you from going out, having serious concerns for your or other family members’ health and safety.
He continues: “In this case, there may be a reluctance to go to school, or to the shops, or to mix with friends or extended family.”
How can parents support a child with anxiety?
McBrien says the best support for anxiety is appropriate age-related communication.
“The topic should be raised in a way that your child will understand, with simple facts and reassurance. There are many very good educational resources and storybooks about Covid that address the subject in a helpful and age-specific way,” he adds.
Monitoring the news consumption in your household is also a supportive step. “In some households, the news is often on with updates about infections, deaths and policy decisions,” adds Emma Selby, clinical lead for Wysa, an AI-enabled mental health app.
“Your children may not be able to register it knowingly, but they are absorbing all the stress which will manifest later in various ways, like irrational fear and anxiety.
“To ensure this doesn’t happen, you could engage in simple, repetitive exercises like playing catch with a ball, or jumping on a trampoline, to allow them to release the nervous energy.
“You may also find it helpful for your child’s emotional wellbeing – and your own – to set a limit on how long you will watch the news, so you can stay up to date without dwelling on anxieties outside your control.”
Selby says that another great way to reduce anxiety is to try mindfulness or simple breathing exercises, using an app like Wysa with your kids.
“No matter where you are, take five minutes with your children to try deep-breathing exercises, soothing chants, or just take a walk in the fresh air. Yoga is also the perfect mindfulness exercise for children of all ages.”
She continues: “20 minutes of yoga per day works amazingly well to allow them to listen to their bodies and release tension. Find which method helps calm your family and do it often – even turning the TV off for 15 minutes can prove beneficial.”
Above all, McBrien says you should talk to children about anxiety and how it is a normal feeling that is not dangerous, and that it’s helped by talking and sharing. If your child’s anxiety is interfering with their wellbeing and day-to-day life, it’s also important to book an appointment to speak to their GP about your concerns.
“If possible, don’t force your child to do something they are very anxious about, but instead, work together to build their confidence in a gradual way, and recruit the support and understanding of others, such as teachers,” says McBrien.