Coronavirus – how to manage childrens anxiety during a crisis in SA
I am certainly no doctor, scientist or someone with clinical knowledge of the virus and I do not wish to perpetuate the (seemingly) media panic, but as a therapist who deals with anxiety, Coronavirus certainly needs to be addressed with children. With increasingly intense quarantine rules and regulations making headlines and further implications for South Africa expected, it is less about whether we agree with how/when/why decisions are being made or if it’s being over exaggerated and more about how we manage this experience for the children who are watching us to take their cues for how to respond.
Two years ago I wrote about managing anxiety around ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town, and while we are now dealing with different concerns and on a larger, global level, many of those points are still relevant in this current situation and worth reading. Furthermore, it is important to remember the following:
Do not be afraid to talk about it! It is unlikely that any child has not heard of Coronavirus. While we have been somewhat sheltered from the direct implications in SA, there has been global coverage, and it is possible that we will start to see more direct consequences here (As I write this blog, the first school in SA has closed today due to the virus). Talking about it will not make them more anxious – in fact, not talking about it makes them worry more, while sharing honest, appropriate information can really help them feel contained and allows them to filter out the more emotive, panicked messages from media and friends. Let them know that you will continue to keep them updated as you learn more.
A 7 year old differs from a 17 year old. We need to be mindful of sharing appropriate information based on your child’s development. We don’t need to share too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer your child’s questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters. Let them ask the questions, as many as they may need to, in order to contain any frightening fantasies, they may develop in their heads.
Deal with your own anxiety. It’s hard not to have an emotional response – this virus is being touted as a major world crisis by some and a major overreaction by others. Either way, its emotive. Be aware of conversations you may be having with other people that your child can overhear or what they are being exposed to. They are sponges, soaking up everything, so its important to contain your own anxiety. If you notice that you are feeling anxious, take some time to calm down before trying to have a conversation or answer your child’s questions.
Focus on what you can do to keep safe. In times of concern, it’s important to help child feel empowered with actions they can take to keep safe. Currently the most consistent advice is that we need to adhere to good levels of personal hygiene (as we should always) – so we can remind children that they are taking care of themselves by washing their hands with soap and water for the length of singing “Happy Birthday” when they come in from outside, before they eat, and after blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing or using the toilet.
Embrace the learning opportunities. If we shift from focusing on the panic, we can use this opportunity to talk to children about many different aspects that are connected to Coronavirus. Examples of possible conversations that can be had include around about sense of a global ‘community’, fake news vs trusted sources, the spread of information, the different reactions being seen, how fear and panic can make us act in ways that are unhelpful, developing empathy for others and previous examples of epidemics and solutions.
Stick to routine. Should we get to a point where their day-to-day life gets interrupted or affected, it’s important to keep things as predictable and routed in routine as possible. Structured days with regular mealtimes and bedtimes and regular expectations for their behaviors are essential parts of keeping children happy and healthy.
So, while some anxiety is totally reasonable when dealing with these types of issues, it is also an opportunity to learn valuable life skills in managing our emotions during this time and building resilience.