How does anxiety present in children?
Children, especially those who are younger, may experience difficulty in recognising their emotions and expressing them in words, and thus are unlikely to say they are feeling anxious. Children suffering from anxiety will, however, often complain of having physical symptoms, such as a headache, tummy ache, body aches or sore throat and may also exhibit signs of nausea, vomiting, sweating, diarrhoea, shaking, or even difficulty in breathing.
Some of these symptoms are also common to COVID-19. The difference, however, is that these symptoms usually dissipate once the source of the perceived anxiety is removed, e.g. the child stays at home instead of going to school. Often, however, these symptoms return the next morning before school, and in that there is no physical basis for them, i.e. they tend to be “psychosomatic” in nature. In addition, they are often accompanied by difficulty falling or staying asleep (contributing to exhaustion), emotional outbursts or tantrums for no apparent reason, negative thoughts, and poor concentration (lack of focus).
How can parents reduce anxiety in children?
Follow predictable routines: Anxiety thrives on uncertainty whereas predictable routine and structure will provide children with an increased sense of security during times of uncertainty. Sending your child to school regularly should form part of this routine, unless you are advised not to, and will reinforce this, and provide some sense of a return to normalcy. Moreover, strive to be consistent in your actions.
Focus on controllable tasks: Anxiety thrives in situations over which one has no control, e.g., what is shown on TV whereas we can control what our children watch on TV. As parents, we may feel anxious when our children attend school without us being present to personally protect them, but we can teach them how to be safe, and be assured that their teachers are as committed to their well-being as we are.
Encourage a positive mindset: Anxiety flourishes on negative thoughts and the “worst-case scenario” whereas adopting a positive mindset allows one to challenge these thoughts in a rational way based on facts. Encourage your child to focus on the present moment (“You’re safe right now!”) and consider the best outcome. Reassure your child that you do not know when this will end, but that it won’t last forever.
Keep in contact with others: Anxiety flourishes when one “withdraws”, or isolates oneself from others whereas contact with family, friends, teacher and classmates provides a supportive “social network” for children to talk about their feelings. Although lockdown places severe restrictions on social contact, we can encourage our children to use Zoom or WhatsApp to chat to others, and schedule family meetings.
Limit social media and TV exposure: Anxiety thrives on disseminating bad news and misinformation while excessive “screen time” (watching TV, playing video games, etc.) is associated with a greater risk of anxiety and depression in children. We should, therefore, take active steps to limit children’s “screen time” by setting restrictions and providing media-free times or locations, family social contact excluded.
Adopt and follow a healthy lifestyle: Anxiety flourishes amongst individuals who are physically tired, not eating properly, or physically inactive whereas getting enough sleep/rest, following a balanced diet, getting sufficient exercise, and taking time to relax help combat anxiety in children (and adults!). Spend more time as a family going for walks, playing outdoor sports together and promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Finally, in these times of uncertainty, let us all take cognisance of an encouraging quote from Socrates: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
Disclaimer: David Weekes is an Educational Psychologist. Advice given in this article is not intended to diagnose any medical condition nor suggest that parents should not seek appropriate medical advice and consult their general practitioner or medical doctor should their child present with any COVID-19 symptoms.