Sense and Sensitivity: helping kids stay calm amidst COVID-19

Anxiety is a natural response to something that has the potential to cause us harm. It makes sense that news of a global pandemic and some of the world’s most powerful nations going into lockdown is anxiety-inducing, especially for children who have less experience than us grown-ups at processing bad news and making sense of traumatic events. The reality is, COVID-19 is an unprecedented event on a global scale, and a bit of anxiety in adults and children alike is to be expected. As parents, COVID-19 has landed us in an unprecedented season in our family life. We can arm ourselves with as much hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes as the supermarket shelves will supply (so not much, potentially), but perhaps more importantly, we can arm ourselves with the tools to support our kids – and ourselves – emotionally, fending off worry and combatting anxiety with wisdom, calm and connection. Still plenty of these resources available to all, even those who’ve self-isolated!

Press pause on the panic

If your inbox is anything like mine, every organisation, sports club, business and service provider you’ve ever had anything to do with is right now sending you updates on COVID-19 and the ‘appropriate’ response to it. There’s a high chance you’re experiencing information overload, and that’s before you’ve even turned on the news or opened the newspaper. Information is there to help, but it’s up to us to apply the necessary filters for our own wellbeing, and subsequently that of our family. Make a point of getting the most accurate and up-to-date information required for a safe and sensible day, and then tune out all the ‘noise’. If you feel appropriately informed, you’ll be more confident in answering your children’s questions and calming their fears. Knowledge is power and information is helpful – absolutely. Too much information, however, can breed anxiety.

It’s absolutely key that we keep the lines of communication open with our children – that they know they can come to us with any questions or concerns, whenever they need to. It’s okay to mute the media our children are exposed to and position ourselves as their main source of information. You are the best filter for your child, as you best know their personality, temperament and emotional needs.

Panic breeds panic, but calm breeds calm

It’s understandable that our kids will be feeling anxious right now. A pandemic is loaded with fear-inducing ingredients – especially when we lose sight of perspective. Our kids take their cues from us – if we are anxious, they will be anxious. If we panic, they will panic. Conversely, if we remain calm, they will be empowered to step into calm.

Remaining calm as a parent, with children looking to you for their every need, can require a determined effort. This is vitally important work you are doing – give yourself a pat on the back (and maybe a bar of chocolate). Look after yourself as you look after your family – pause and take some deep breaths. Step outside for some fresh air. Make a cup of tea and take a break to enjoy it. Practise mindfulness – stop, recognise and appreciate your feelings. Anxiety makes sense in this season, but it doesn’t have to take control. Call a friend for support, but do take care not to vent any of your own anxiety or debrief the latest news bulletin in earshot of your kids. Remember, your kids are taking their cues from you. Absolutely discuss the hard questions and provide your kids with the answers they need for reassurance, but keep in mind the importance of tone of voice, body language and optimism. We can help our anxious kids by simply lending them our calm.

Keep things in perspective

But just how do we remain calm in a global pandemic? Good question. The answer can be found in perspective. The reality is that for reasonably healthy people – especially young people and children – contact with COVID-19 will likely lead to flu-like symptoms typical of the colds and flu viruses we’ve all been dealing with for decades. A healthy perspective right now is that New Zealand is engaging in prudent preventative measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, so as to minimise the impact and to protect our most vulnerable. Yes, lives and livelihoods are at stake on a wider scale, but at an individual level we’re relatively safe. What we do within our households is for the benefit of the community. We’re protecting ourselves, yes, but we’re acting for the greater good. Change in routine can be scary and disruption can cause anxiety, but we can gently remind or kids that as a family we will most likely be fine. The measures we are taking are because we want to help look after our wider community, not because we ourselves are at any great risk.

Stay connected

Distance and isolation are necessary practical steps to prevent, or at least slow, the spread of infection. They are required in a pandemic to limit the spread of germs, but in doing so they can be a breeding ground for anxiety. Connection is actually what we desperately need right now – across humanity but especially within our families, and most definitely towards our children. Make connection your daily priority, regularly checking in with your children and other family members. Where possible, maintain connection with neighbours and fellow community members. Keep an eye out for people who are isolated and encourage your children to do the same. While hugs, handshakes and hongi might be off the table right now, kids might like to write an elderly neighbour a card or draw them a picture. No germs can be transmitted via a phone call, as far as I’m aware, so prioritise regular check-ins with family and friends. I have family in self-isolation in the USA and my nieces are sending our kids daily videos of their house-bound antics. My girls return the sentiment with many an emoji-laden text message or hysterical video call.

We’re all in this together – a global pandemic brings with it a sense of unity. Let’s harness that unity and capitalise on the power of shared experience – this is the moment for technology to step up and do its bit to combat anxiety with the power of connection.

One day at a time

Uncertainty is definitely a culprit when it comes to anxiety. The truth is, we don’t really know what the future holds. But, hard as that is – we can rest in the fact that it’s okay to take one day at a time, and we can help our kids adopt this approach too. We can answer questions regarding the future as best as we can, but we can also help our kids by modelling calm alongside our uncertainty regarding what will happen next. We can have a plan for the immediate future and explain to our kids that we as a family – along with everyone else – are taking each day as it comes. Reassure your kids with the fact that lots of people are working hard to keep everyone safe and cared for – that we can trust the doctors, scientists, politicians and community leaders to do their jobs. And as a family, we will keep making wise decisions based on the information at hand – one day at a time.

Create a refuge

A silver lining of cancellations, closures and confinement is that we may well be spending a lot more time at home with our families. Obviously this comes with its own set of challenges (click here for some self-isolation survival tips), but it’s worth keeping in mind that an important resource for combating anxiety is found within the four walls of our houses – the refuge that is home. Our homes are ideally our safe-havens, the quiet places we retreat to when the noise of the outside world becomes too much. As parents, we set the atmosphere within our homes. As previously discussed, our mood will influence the mood of our children, but we can also take practical steps to foster a nurturing and secure environment at home. Things like limiting the intrusion of media, tuning out influences we consider unhelpful to our family culture and instead focusing on the faith, values or attitudes that are foundational to our unit.

We can turn up the fun – laugh, play, sing and dance together. In terms of infection, we’re probably safest at home so we might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re avoiding germs! It’s not naïve to foster a refuge of joy and calm at home – in fact it’s wise! They say laughter is the best medicine and happiness has been proven to boost our immune systems. So keep calm, wash your hands, and smile!

 

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About Author

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamarki.

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