Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
With the immediate future so uncertain and the lingering threat of an invisible illness, the coronavirus has caused anxiety to color a lot of everyday life. Especially if you’re a kid, suddenly forced to stay away from your friends with limited access to information or understanding.
So what can parents do to help their children manage anxiety? Experts say it starts with knowing the signs.
Katharine Appleyard of Appleyard Counseling in Bangor said that signs of stress in children and teens include psychosomatic complaints like headaches, stomach aches and muscle aches; sleep disturbance; irritability; regressed behavior including bedwetting; changes in eating habits; avoiding schoolwork; excessive worry or sadness; and aggressive behavior.
The response to stress will vary depending on the child, but it also might depend on their age. Teenagers are likely to act out, feel angry or engage in the use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, Appleyard said.
The first step if you notice these behaviors in your child is to validate their feelings of anxiety and let them know that what they are feeling is normal.
“This [pandemic] is real,” said Holly Bean, director of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Southern Maine. “[Children] are really experiencing the anxiety.”
Parents may feel helpless at this time, too, but this is the time to develop your own healthy coping skills and instill them in your children as well, Bean said.
“This is all of our first pandemic,” she said. “We can all learn how to handle it better. This is an opportunity for ourselves to put tools in our toolbag that we can utilize during these times.”
Appleyard said that Healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety include reducing media exposure, staying active through exercise and hobbies like cooking and gardening and expressing emotions instead of suppressing them, Appleyard said. The same applies for children, and they will follow their parents’ lead.
“It’s okay to cry!” she said.
“Parents can support their children by managing their own anxiety, making time to laugh and play, making routines for family exercise and trying to keep things upbeat,” Appleyard said. “The good news is that the things kids need are the same things that adults need.”
Appleyard recognized that this sort of co-existence with your children can be especially challenging if they are young or if there is not another adult around to help. If you are still struggling, Appleyard said to reach out to other parents.
“Check your expectations to see if they are realistic and connect with other parents who empathize with the current situation,” she said.
Connecting your children with professional help can also be an important step to managing their anxiety, especially if their symptoms persist or they experience hopelessness or other feelings that are difficult to manage.
“Reaching out to your pediatrician or to a mental health therapist is important if your child is experiencing intense symptoms related to stress,” Appleyard said.
For older children, Bean said that it is important for them to want to reach out for help themselves, though parents can guide and support them on their journey.
“I can offer that suggestion, but again they’re adults,” she said. “They get to make up their own mind. Leave information out and about for an adult child.”
For additional resources, Appleyard recommended the G.E.A.R. Parent Network is a great resource, which connects parents of children with behavioral health needs to build on their family’s strengths and to advocate for their family’s needs.
Bean also recommended the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, which has family-specific resources as well as information catered towards teenagers.
When tackling mental health with your children, especially during such a strange time, Bean said not to get frustrated with bad days or seeming lapses in progress.
“It’s not a linear process,” she said. “Everybody is going to have different outcomes, everybody is going to be at a different place that feels comfortable for them. I think the biggest thing that parents can do is listen.”