Calming Coronavirus anxiety in children (and everyone else)

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The Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is whipping up a storm of uncertainty and needless panic-buying across the UK and the rest of the world. Go to your local supermarket and you will see empty aisles as if Supermarket Sweep had just been held there.

The Coronavirus panic is a result of what people see in the media - fake or real - and our children see it and hear about it too. If their parents are talking non-stop about it or panic-buying, they're likely to become even more alarmed.

Keeping yourself and your child calm

In my counselling practice, I am hearing these worries from children and their parents about Coronavirus every day. When your child has additional needs that includes anxiety, it's part of our job to keep them grounded and calm. But as it's the top news story/stories every single day, it has become impossible to avoid hearing about Coronavirus, or how many people have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

In our house, I thought we were doing quite well with keeping our autistic son calm about it. Then I heard from his school that he's been having concerns about catching COVID-19, so we might be seeing the swan effect with him. He may seem serene, but is desperately trying to keep afloat below the surface, so we need to let him know he can talk to us about his worries. On reflection, I had noticed a difference in his behaviour, so this may well be why.

You may notice your child being more clingy than usual, or they may display other signs of being anxious that are particular to them. If your child is non-verbal, their concerns may be evident in their behaviour or sleep patterns. If your child has to attend regular hospital appointments, or if they have lower immunity, they may also be harbouring unspoken worries, especially if they see you are already on edge about it.

Therefore, it's important to control your own anxiety - internally and in how you behave. If you feel yourself getting anxious, stop, sit down and regulate your breathing. Remember that at present, the most dangerous thing is not Coronavirus; it's fear. Then, try some deep breaths and maybe some gentle stretching, as you are likely to be holding your body in a tense position.

Educate yourself on the facts about Coronavirus & COVID-19 and only the facts. Then limit yourself to checking once or twice a day or only check the official Government site. Definitely avoid the hype of the popular press.

  • Anyone with a "new, continuous" cough or high temperature is now advised to self-isolate for seven days
  • Most who do catch it will recover and for the majority, it will be a relatively mild condition.
  • There are steps you can take to help protect yourself, including social distancing and good hygiene.

How can I respond to my child's Coronavirus anxiety?

I think the first response is perspective. While it's important to acknowledge that this situation does require monitoring and is going to increase the anxiety of both adults and children, keeping perspective is important.

"How do you do it?" said night 
"How do you wake up and shine?" 
"I keep it simple," said light 
"One day at a time"
Lemn Sissay

Give them clear facts at a level they can understand. Anxiety and fear feeds on anything it can to keep it active, the antidote to fear is hope and the antidote to anxiety is facts, evidence, acceptance and grounding. Focusing on facts and evidence can help reduce anxiety, together with adopting some simple techniques to help with grounding. All we can actually do in this situation is take each day as it comes. If they are particularly anxious, this CBT Anxiety workbook may help (and you don't have to leave the house to get it)

There is a very informative video here and also below, released by the World Health Organization (WHO) that addresses the mental health impact of COVID-19 and how to support yourself and your children. If you specifically want to look at the advice for supporting children go to 12 minutes into the video, which is where it starts below.

Teach them to wash their hands properly

Getting children to wash their hands properly or even regularly can be tricky. I would suggest trying to make it fun rather than fearful. Fear can increase avoidance and therefore cause more issues with handwashing than solve them.

  • Find a song that they like and play or sing it whilst handwashing – trying to get my son to wash his hands to the Happy Birthday song was never going to happen, so he got to choose which one he preferred.
  • Use a spontaneous reward when they have washed their hands
  • Stay with them whilst they wash their hands too – they are more likely to do it if you are present 
  • Wash your hands with them, incorporating a game such as making the most amount of soap suds
  • Blow bubbles and clap hands on them, hands get sticky and need washing afterwards
  • Use wet wipes to wipe hands – while long term this is not a viable solution, in the short term it will leave hands cleaner than they were.

Teaching them effective techniques to wash their hands, if they have the ability to do so, empowers them to help themselves. The video below also gives some handy hints:

Working from home

If you're working from home, or they have to stay at home, try to keep as normal a routine as possible. If you do have to work, make sure you give your child(ren) something they can do for half an hour by themselves, preferably while you're in the same room (depending on age). Then take a break with them - go for a walk (if you're not self-isolating), play a game, do some school work that they need your help with, read a book together. Give them your undivided attention.

Then give them a drink and snack and set them up with their own work or task so you can try to get in another half an hour of work. But keep it fluid, mix it up, and avoid looking at COVID-19 related-news in front of them. Or at all. If they ask a question about it, again, keep it simple and stick to the facts.

Don’t expect to be able to keep up a full school programme. Use online resources and your school should send work home or put it online.

Helping children understand  COVID-19

Keep it simple and ensure you are not anxious when speaking with your child. An anxious child will pick up on your anxiety and not feel safe in trusting the information. Make sure you are fully aware of the facts and evidence when talking about it with your child. If you don't feel you can be calm while doing this, ask your partner or another family member to have that discussion with your child. 

At the current time and based on our understanding of what is known of COVID-19 and other similar respiratory Coronaviruses, it is likely that older people and those with chronic medical conditions may be vulnerable to severe disease. As more information emerges, recommendations may change. If your child has a respiratory condition or is immuno-suppressed, contact their specialist or GP for specific advice or check the website for the charity or condition support group concerned. Knowledge is better than fear. There is a BBC article with advice for people with chronic health conditions here

It is important to ensure that any support you give your child is developmentally appropriate. Most of the advice says to be age-appropriate but this is often not the case with children who are disabled or have additional needs. However you usually communicate will be the most effective, but ask their school if they have any pictures or visuals to support your child’s understanding.

Here is an easy-read poster and you can find another longer version here. A poster for those not requiring easy read is here

0800 046 8687 DfE Coronavirus helpline

The Department for Education (DfE) helpline (see below) offers guidance for anyone with education-related questions on coronavirus – from early years up to universities, plus parents. Tel: 0800 046 8687 (open Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm), 

Calming Coronavirus anxiety top tips

  • Use a range of fact-based media to reassure your child. Remember that in the absence of facts, children will often imagine situations are far worse than reality.
  • Use the most current information available. Public Health England update their website every day with a regional breakdown of where cases are in the UK
  • Be calm yourself as an anxious child will sense your anxiety.
  • Make yourself available to your child as they may need more reassurance than usual. Reassuring them that children are not a high-risk category may help quell any fears they have.
  • Avoid listening or giving weight to rumours about Coronavirus. Check where the information has come from.
  • Be aware of any comments from other adults around your child. You may have to explain what comments mean if they are different than the values that you have at home.
  • Maintain as normal a routine as possible while keeping aware of current health advice. If you're advised to stay at home - stay at home!
  • Remember it is completely normal for anxiety to be higher at a time like this, but be aware of the impact that excessive viewing of TV and social media can have on yours and your child's mental health.
  • Use common sense based on current guidelines
  • If you or anyone if your family develops a cough, fever, or shortness of breath, call 111 or your GP for guidance as per current advice. Only call 999 if it is a life-threatening medical emergency. If your child lives with a serious medical condition, trust your instincts.

If we all stick to the guidelines and follow the advice, the spread will eventually diminish. As the WHO says, we are in the best position ever to contain a possible pandemic.

A version for older children and grown-ups

Also read:

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Angela Kelly
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