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What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children, and What Can We Do About It?

June 23, 2020
By Chloe Zachary, MA, Doctoral Intern in Clinical Psychology at The Stewart Center

Given the disruption to our daily lives and uncertainty of what the future holds, it’s no wonder that the Covid-19 pandemic has many of us feeling anxious. By making a conscious effort to manage anxiety levels in your family — you can build your family’s resilience now and for the future.  Here are some specific steps you can take to manage your child’s anxiety during this challenging time:

Recognize it! Common signs of anxiety in children include: irritability, sleep disruptions, behavioral outburst or tantrums, physical aches (i.e. head and stomach aches), crying and increased sensitivity, difficulty concentrating and physical symptoms like racing heart, fast breathing and clammy hands. Seeing regression in children at times of stress is also quite normal; this could include accidents in children who are potty-trained, thumb-sucking or other “baby-like” behaviors, increased clinginess or resorting to other previously outgrown behaviors. Additional signs of anxiety commonly seen in individuals with ASD include greater sensory sensitivity and rigidity, increased self-stimulation and repetitive behaviors/vocalizations, aggression and self-injury.

Acknowledge that it’s normal to be anxious! Children—and adults—are likely to be feeling a range of emotions right now and it’s critical to remember there is no wrong way to feel, now or ever! Ask how your child is feeling using the means they can best express themselves—be it words, drawing or choosing an emotion face from a feelings chart. Before offering solutions, re-assure your child that it’s understandable they are feeling that way.

Find out what your child knows. Uncertainty breeds fear in people of all ages. Ask your child to share what they understand about the situation, be it in words or pictures. This will provide you an opportunity to correct any misinformation and provide age-appropriate facts. While you’re at it, limit your child’s exposure to the news—as this can heighten their anxiety. The following are a variety of resources for explaining Coronavirus to kids of varied developmental levels:

Manage your own anxiety. Children turn to caregivers for information on how to react in uncertain times, making it all the more important to monitor your own emotions right now.  Like all humans, parents are entitled to their own emotions but be aware of what you model for your children.  Try to model a calm demeanor when interacting with your kids and turn those times when you lose your cool as a teaching moment: “Wow! I’m feeling very stressed right now, so I’m going to take 5 deep breaths.”

Use these four basic strategies as much as possible:

  • Establish and maintain a daily routine.
  • Get your whole family physically moving.
  • Get outside and get some fresh air.
  • End each day by identifying one thing for which you are grateful.