The pandemic has been hard on everyone, even kids, who might not be able to do everything they normally would at school, with friends, or around the holidays. In this Q&A with a Care clinician, we ask how parents can make sure their kids aren’t taking on unnecessary anxiety and stress, how to know the signs of stress in kids, and what parents can do to help kids cope when those feelings arise.
Q: When the pandemic began, I thought my children would be resilient. They’re stronger than I am sometimes, and frankly, their ignorance to the gravity of the situation protected them. But with virtual school back in full swing — serving as a daily reminder that life is, in fact, not normal — I’m beginning to worry. How can I manage my child’s stress and keep them healthy?
This is a more anxious time for everyone, including kids. Their routines have been upended. Some are learning at home without the peer support and stimulation of in-person school, while others are in school with a whole new set of rules. Everybody is spending more time on screens and less time moving their body. And this whole circus is being managed by parents and caregivers whose own schedules and lives have been turned upside down, too. Talk about a recipe for stress with a side of stress.
Signs that your child might be experiencing anxiety:
- sleeping difficulties
- excessive worrying
- difficulty separating
- tantrums and outbursts
- physical complaints like headaches and stomachaches
If your kid is experiencing any of these symptoms, they’re not alone. Research has found that the pandemic has increased stress and anxiety in kids significantly. One survey of 8,000 Chinese students ages 12 to 18 living through the COVID-19 pandemic found that more than 40% of them were experiencing depressive symptoms and nearly 40% were having anxiety. Girls had the highest rates, which were also higher in the older grades.
But the researchers found that having good, correct information about how to prevent the spread of the virus had an inverse relationship with anxiety. The more the kids knew about how they could protect themselves, the less anxious they were. Another study conducted with parents of two- to 17-year-olds in Italy found that the more stress parents experienced during the pandemic, the greater the rates of anxiety among their children.
The good news is there are things you can do to decrease your child’s overall anxiety and ways to help them move through it when they (inevitably) feel it.
How to help your child manage stress and anxiety
- Let them know it’s normal. Explain that anxiety is actually a normal and adaptive response to life’s difficulties. Explain, for instance, that it can help motivate them to study for—and do well on—a test; the pit-in-their stomach feeling can be a signal that they really care about the thing that’s making them stressed. But let them know anxiety can also be really uncomfortable, too, and there are good (and bad) ways to manage and work through it when it is.
- Listen to your child’s worries. It’s hard to see your kid struggle, which is why it can be so tempting to try and “fix” things right away. But every school counselor will tell you a feeling that goes unfelt will just pop up in a less useful place (like a stomachache at night when you really need them to fall asleep). The fact of the matter is you can’t promise that everything is going to be okay right now (and your kids might not buy it anyway). Instead, give your child time and space to talk about their concerns. You can validate them with phrases like, “that must be so hard” or “sounds like that really worries you.”
- Provide information and context. Once they’ve had a chance to voice their concerns, you can address them with good information. Both of the studies above demonstrate that accurate information on how to stay safe is a powerful antidote to kids’ stress. Share with them the things your family is doing, schools are doing, and what they can do to stay healthy, such as wearing masks, washing hands, and practicing social distancing. That will give them a sense of control in a time that feels very out of control. Here is a really great list of ways to talk to your child from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
- Help them focus on the present moment. Anxiety almost always falls into one of two categories: perseverating on something that already happened or creating a story about something that could happen in the future. In reality, most of the time, whoever is experiencing the anxiety is safe and well in the present moment.
One way to help your child understand that is through simple breathing exercises that can actually stop the fight or flight response.
Another is a simple technique called “3 things.” When your child is spinning with anxiety, have them name three things they can see, three things they can hear, and three things they can touch or feel. You can do it with them and both of you will be reminded that, in the here and now, you are safe.
You can find other kid-focused breathing exercises and guided meditations on apps like InsightTimer, Calm, and Headspace. Here’s a fun list of 51 Mindful Activities to help your child find themselves in the present moment.
Even though anxiety is normal, it can be rough on kids (and parents), which is why one of the best things you can do is follow the experts recommendations when it comes to creating a more calm environment for your kids.
- Aim for them to get the recommended amount of sleep for their age and you will be rewarded with a noticeable reduction in anxiety and its unpleasant side effects (goodbye tantrums!).
- Create a routine and keep it visible. Kids thrive when they know what to expect. Come up with a routine that gives their days a sense of rhythm. If they are old enough, ask if they want to create it with you. Post it on a white board or paper where your child can easily see it. If your child hasn’t learned to read yet, use pictures to represent the day’s activities.
- Get them moving. When we exercise, we give our body the stress workout it’s asking for, and it releases neurochemicals that calm us. A meta-analysis of five years of research found that exercise improves the mental health of kids ages six to 17. Plus, it helps with sleep, which is the first step in your anxiety relief plan. Schedule family dance parties, plan socially distant bike rides and playdates with friends, and, when all else fails, use sites like GoNoodle or Cosmic Kids Yoga to make sure your child is taking breaks from the screen to move their body frequently.
Reach out for professional help, if needed
Sometimes the best thing you can do as a parent is enlist professional support to give your kids the tools they need to thrive—or to help you be in a better position to help them.
Signs that your child’s anxiety might benefit from professional support include:
- Having difficulties in several areas of their life (such as school, friends or family) at once
- Anxiety that makes it hard for them to function as they normally do
- Significant changes in eating or sleep patterns
- If you are having a hard time helping them cope or feel too overwhelmed yourself
- If your child has experienced trauma in the past or has lost a loved one during this crisis
- Your gut feeling as a parent that they need it
If you are having a hard time managing your own anxiety and see that it is affecting you or our kids negatively, reach out for support. Amazon Care team members can help both you and your children with stress management techniques. Open the app to speak with a team member today.