Helping Children Deal with Covid-19
By Sally Baird, PhD
What if my parents get sick? Why can’t I play with my friends? Will we have enough money to eat? What is a coronavirus?
I’m scared Mommy….
These may be just some of the questions and comments you are hearing from your worried child during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a child psychologist and co-author of the new book Shrinking the Worry Monster, I know that children can become extra anxious when everyone around them appears worried. Our book tells the story of kids who take control to shrink the mean Worry Monster and expose his lies.
But in our new reality of living with the coronavirus, what if some of the worries the kids hear from Worry Monster are true? If so, can a book about a lying Worry Monster and the use of anxiety-reducing strategies still be helpful to calm children? Absolutely! In fact, anxiety-reducing ideas are even more important to use now. The following research-based strategies (which are in our book) are based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most effective programs used to overcome anxiety and depression.
Get Control of Your Own Anxiety
Of course you are anxious right now. But it is important for you to manage your own anxiety for the sake of both you and your children. Explore the topic online and you will find many good discussions. You can also follow the strategies I will discuss below for your children. CBT works well for any age group.
Identify Your Child’s Worries
The goals here are to normalize your child’s worries and to acknowledge that some, but not all, of their worries could be real. Start by asking open-ended questions like the following—
- What do you know about COVID-19?
- How has your life changed because of the coronavirus?
- Tell me about your feelings.
- Many of us have worries about the virus right now, even Mom and Dad. Does it cause you any worry? If so, what are your worries?
Be very open and accepting of their answers. Remember that they are taking a risk in telling you their fears when they know you are already nervous. Don’t be surprised by any of their worries. Some will mirror yours and other will appear to have come out of nowhere and not make any sense to you. Treat each worry with respect.
Then take a sheet of paper and put a line down the middle. On the left side, you or your child write down the worries in a column.
Divide the Worries Into Very Realistic Versus Less Realistic Worries
Now that you have a worry list, take each worry and talk about the probability of the worry really happening. Help your child rate each worry from one to five, with five being very likely. Put this number beside the worry. Next, have an open discussion about the worry by listening to your child’s viewpoint as well as offering your own calming suggestions. Then have your child re-rate the worry.
Let’s say the worry is “I won’t see my friends again.” Ask your child how likely that is and have them come up with an initial rating number. You might respond with a comment like “I bet we can think of ways to see your friends in a new way right now.”
You might talk about virtual meeting time with FaceTime or Zoom or seeing each other from a distance in a park. Encourage creative, yet safe ideas. Have your child re-rate the worry.
Here’s another example: “Everyone is getting sick.” Have them give it a rating number. Next, ask your child what they mean by everyone and how scary that must feel. You might then respond by reassuring them that doctors have found that most people who do get sick, do get better.
Re-rate the worry.
Don’t be surprised if the worry rating goes down after the discussion. Why? Because you have helped your child face the worry, talked about the low probability of the worry being completely true, and you have reassured your child that you will be there to keep her safe. You have become the source of facts, not fear.
Talk Back to the Worry
The next step can be very fun. In our book, we discuss talking back to the Worry Monster who is trying to trick us with scary thoughts. Now it is you and your child’s turn to talk back to each worry. On the right side of your worry paper, have your child come up with responses to each worry. The goal is to reply to their exaggerated worry with a more measured, less reactive, and realistic response. You can even throw in some assertive and fun responses on the right side of the paper, like telling Worry Monster that he belongs in the garbage can or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Either you or your child can then write down the responses
Based on our two examples, here are some possible responses:
- I can see my friends over a screen.
- I will get to spend screen time with my grandparents, who are teaching me to cook.
- It is fun to be home with my family.
- I don’t like you, Worry!
- Most people aren’t going to get sick and most of those that do, will get well.
- There are smart people in charge of this problem.
- My parents and I already have a list of what fun things we are going to do together.
- Worry, go jump in a lake!
Take Additional Steps To Be Healthy
There are many suggestions in the media about how to keep your child healthy and engaged with activities. Consider exercise, new skills like cooking or crafts or gardening, dog training, kids’ yoga, daily talks with grandparents or others, or a family reading challenge. The possibilities are endless. Stay on a schedule and make sure to get enough sleep.
Learning to Shrink the Worry Monster has never been so important. Because of the Covid-19, our collective anxiety is very high. This article gives specific research-based tools on how to help your child (and yourself) manage the worries. You and your child are encouraged to use them regularly and even have fun with them. Now is the best time to start Shrinking the Worry Monster!!
Sally Baird, PhD is a retired child psychologist and co-author of the new book, Shrinking the Worry Monster, A Kid’s Guide for Saying Goodbye to Worries. Her book can be found online at www.drsallyb.com, on the shelf at Auntie’s Books, or anywhere books are sold. This article originally appeared in Red Tricycle 4/30/20. Also visit her website for more information on anxiety and children.