Apologies in advance for another post on COVID-19. I am sure like many of you, your newsfeed and even radio listening is dominated by COVID, COVID, COVID! In some ways I am sick to death of the doom and gloom, the graphs and stats, the stages and general economic decline. For me though, information is power and therefore I want to make sure that I am informed and up to date in a way that is healthy and not in a way that is detrimental to my mental wellbeing.

Anyway, I digress … back to my post. I want to take some time to talk about how parents and guardians, even teachers can assist children struggling with worry and anxious thoughts. I have had quite a few little ones in my office over the last months, who are scared stiff of returning to school or leaving home for whatever reason, worried the big ugly COVID monster will catch up with them. I have spoken to concerned moms and teachers looking to better equip themselves to help and support their kids.

Here are 5 things that you can do to correctly support a child who is struggling with anxious thoughts (these principles can be applied to teens and adults alike):

1.Anxiety can be good
Help your child to see that anxiety can actually be helpful. Use an example that speaks to them personally. For example, ask them if they like to fail a test. Hopefully they will tell you NO! Explain how the butterflies in their tummy that drives them to work hard on practice
questions or to study, is anxiety. Let them see how anxiety can be motivating. It isn’t always bad.

2.Resist the temptation to avoid anxiety provoking situations
As the mom of an anxious daughter I know how tempting it can be to just avoid whatever causes anxiety in my daughter. When she was little, this was pretty easier; not so much the older she is getting and of course during a global pandemic. When you actively avoid situations that make your child anxious, you are in fact reinforcing the behaviour. They may experience short term relief but in the long run this is not beneficial to them. It can helpful to prepare them for the experience but be careful to not allow too much time between telling them and the actually experience, this can lead to overthinking which in turn heightens anxiety. Do what you can to help them cope, for example equip them with a face mask and their own bottle of sanitiser. Model a calm approach, even if you’re not feeling it. Like much of parenting, “fake it ‘til you make it!”

3.Respect but don’t enable feelings
This includes acknowledging your child’s fears, letting them know that it is normal and ok to feel what they are feeling. However, you also need to be careful that you don’t camp there with your child. You need to encourage them to look forward and take steps (even baby steps) forward. Let me know you are there to help them, encourage them with language like bravery. Use examples of their favourite super hero or another person they respect and admire. For example, Grandpa who fought in the war etc.

4.Avoid labels
Try not to label your child. A label tends to box them in, it can also cause them to feel that they need to continue to “live up” to the label, now that it is something stuck to them. Try to make your language of what they are experiencing vague and more descriptive. For example, you can say “I can see that you are worried about going back to school” or “it looks as if you have some fearful feelings around going to the dentist.”

5.Help them to think through worries
Help your child to write a list of what worries them. When they have completed the list, work through the list and mark those that are rational/irrational or most kids should be able to understand true/false. The false worries can be put into a “box” of things they don’t have to worry about. For example, a child worried they are going to be killed by a Tsunami can be shown a map and they can see how far Gauteng is from the coast. Help your child understand that it takes practice to put false worries into a box but that they must keep trying and also that they must close the box, so they don’t fall back out again. It can be helpful to have them write the fear down and place it into an old shoe box. Little boys particularly like to take the worries to the braai and burn them (under strict supervision of course). True worries are a little more difficult. Acknowledge them as above and then speak through how high the risk of this thing coming true is. For example, little ones I have seen that are worried about dying from COVID, I show them the stats by age. (Check them first to make sure they are not going to make the problem worse). Help them think through what they can control about the situation, precautions they can take or the benefits (like shiny, healthy teeth). At the end of the day, the goal of dealing with anxiety is to help them to live with it; to make it more manageable or learn to tolerate feelings of anxiety.

I hope that this article has been helpful. Please leave a question or comment below, we look forward to hearing from you.

Nikki Lister
Specialist Wellness Counsellor in Private Practice

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