One of the first things a parent learns after the birth of their first baby is the importance of a routine. Whether it’s an eat-play-sleep routine for an infant or a customary school day, followed by homework, dinner and a bath for an elementary schooler, children are soothed by knowing where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there, and how they’re expected to behave.
When a global pandemic comes along, however, those routines go out the window. Schools and daycares close, playdates screech to a halt, and all of a sudden, the rules for screen time mean absolutely nothing. Grandma and grandpa don’t come around much anymore. On top of that, there’s a lot of talk that doesn’t make much sense to a little one, but there’s scary words like “virus” and “death” being whispered.
It’s no wonder that children, even those who have never had a nervous bone in their body, are showing signs that they’re on edge. “Anxiety is on the rise, clearly,” says Marna Brickman, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist with Spectrum Behavioral Health in Crofton, who has seen an uptick in parents bringing their child in for professional help. “We’ve never been through anything like this, so there’s no record in our mind of how to deal with it.”
Little Anxious Minds
The pandemic has certainly played a role in increasing the prevalence of anxiety in children, but it’s a concern when all is well in the world—relatively speaking—as well. Around 7 percent of children age 3 to 17, or 4.4 million, have been diagnosed with anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While separation anxiety is fairly common in the younger set, symptoms of other anxiety disorders typically show up around age 11.
Dawn Bent’s daughter, Natalie, started showing signs of anxiety, particularly separation anxiety, at an early age. At the tender age of 6, Natalie was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which as she’s grown (Natalie is now 13) has centered around germs and social anxiety.
“When Natalie was officially diagnosed with anxiety in first grade, her symptoms were those that are used to describe panic attacks: chest pain, sweating, nausea, uncontrollable crying and shaking,” remembers Bent, who lives in Severna Park. “She began avoiding eating food or drinking fluids because she felt comfort in having an empty stomach ‘in case’ she threw up. This occurred for several months,” her mother says. We went to the ER several times for IV fluids and hydration.”
Natalie’s symptoms are typical for GAD and other anxiety disorders, which include social anxiety, panic disorder and phobias, but anxiety in children doesn’t always present that way. While fear and worry are common, anxiety can also show up as irritability or anger, as well as sleeping problems and physical symptoms like fatigue, headache or stomachaches. “Not all kids are able to articulate how they feel,” Brickman notes, so parents need to keep an eye out for both physical and emotional changes.
A Scary Time
While childhood anxiety isn’t unprecedented, there’s no doubt that COVID-19—and everything that has come along with it—has increased the prevalence and the intensity of the disorder. A study of more than 1,700 Chinese children in grades two to six assessed symptoms of anxiety and depression after they had been at home, thanks to the pandemic, for an average of 34 days. Around 19 percent of children participating in the study showed symptoms of anxiety (23 percent showed depressive symptoms), which is higher than normal for young Chinese children. The researchers linked the disorders in part to the decrease in outdoor activities and social interaction.
“Kids thrive on routine and normalcy, so not having school had a big impact on their well-being and mental health,” Brickman says. “They miss their friends, they miss their routine, they miss having to be somewhere at a certain time.”
Additionally, if a parent is suffering from increased anxiety—and many are, as a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that half of Americans reported that the COVID-19 pandemic is harming their mental health—a child is likely going to pick up on that worry. “Children are so sensitive, so smart. We think we’re hiding things from them, but we’re not,” Brickman comments.
Creating Coping Skills
Children don’t have the emotional maturity to understand what’s going on with their anxious little brains, so they need their parents’ help to manage their feelings. “Realize that anxiety is normal right now,” Brickman advises. “What we’re going through is scary, and to feel these feelings is normal—but what we can do is minimize those feelings with coping skills.”
First, do what you can to create a new routine. While there will likely be some adjustment for everyone this fall as virtual learning gets underway, parents can start to establish patterns in the day, such as school time, outside time, independent play time and reading time.
Additionally, try to forge social connections, even during a time of social distancing. If you’re “Zoomed out,” like so many others, you can encourage kids to write letters to relatives, draw pictures to hang on the windows with the goal of brightening other peoples’ day, or find activities that get you out and about without spending time in close quarters with other people.
There may come a time, however, when a parent feels like they’re out of depth, and it’s okay to seek professional help. If a child has stopped talking, lost or gained a significant amount of weight, isn’t sleeping, if their appetite has dramatically changed—these are all signs that it’s time to reach out, Brickman says. Find a mental health professional who works with children by asking your pediatrician or counselor.
In a world where nothing is normal, there’s a benefit in focusing on the positive whenever possible. It’s normal to think about “what if,” Brickman adds, but parents should teach children to focus on “what is”—that is, thinking about the stability that still remains in their lives, including good health, a safe home and having enough food to eat. In other words, don’t negate “the power of positive thinking and gratitude, even though these are scary hard times,” Brickman says. “There’s always something to be grateful for and a positive way to make an impact.”
Coping Skills for Kids
If your child is showing signs of anxiety or seems to be on the verge of panicking, try one of these tactics to help them calm down:
Name animals alphabetically, starting with A for alligator, B for bear, and so on.
Breathe in like you are smelling a flower; breathe out like you are blowing out birthday candles.
Sit in a “calm down spot,” specifically designated for this purpose and outfitted with a cozy blanket or stuffed animal.
Give yourself a tight hug.
Listen to a story on a children’s podcast, such as the Stories Podcast or Tales from the Lilypad