Anxiety in children: how lockdown is affecting your child

anxiety in children

Anxiety in children is rising and they begin to feel stressed and even depressed due to this difficult time during COVID-19.

Our Psychiatrist Dr Magula and Paediatric Practitioner Dr Vahed answer all your questions regarding your child’s well-being and what you as a parent can do to alleviate their anxiety during lockdown.

How can parents best facilitate communication with their children during this time of anxiety and stress?

Parenting during a pandemic and lockdown has become increasingly harder. With all the drastic changes of daily life it’s common for parents to start doubting their parenting abilities. No amount of reading can prepare you for how to handle the situation. 

UNICEF and WHO have recently published some helpful guidelines on how to navigate this difficult time. Keeping it positive and praising your child when they have done something well, shows you have noticed and care. Practicing mindfulness can help you and your child to feel calmer and regain perspective when things start to become overwhelming. 

Setting aside family time and bonding time with all your children, together & individually, on a regular basis can help them feel supported, understood and calmer. Setting a peaceful and safe family environment during stressful times will help with open communication. Be honest and be willing to talk. Set routines with sleep, meals, schoolwork and daily limits for social media and explain what certain news means (in a developmentally suited way for your child). Particularly young children benefit from reassurance of safety from their parents. 

Be calm around your children as they pick up when you are anxious. If you cannot cope, try to seek help for yourself as your children may mimic how you behave and copy some of the reactions that you display including panic, anxiety and frustration in the form of anger and despair. A sense of regulated emotions and actions from you will translate to calmness in your children as well. Limit the content of your verbal communication with adults only to that which is healthy for the child to hear and learn about. It is important to create boundaries, privacy and safe spaces when you engage in adult conversations with your partner, family members, peers or any other adult.  

Your children must feel that you are in control and making the best decisions possible for their well-being.

Your children are aware of what is currently happening with the pandemic so do not avoid these conversations otherwise they may pick up incorrect information. Make sure that you yourself have your facts about the pandemic so that you are able to provide accurate information to your children. Be open to ask then what it is that they already know about the virus and what they have seen or heard and from where. Ensure to make correct measures if there is any inaccurate information shared to your children in any way.

Do not be harsh with them when correcting myths and fake news but rather remain open and polite, making sure that next time they have a question they are still able to confide in your opinion and knowledge as their parent. Some of their ideas about the virus may be funny so if you do laugh it must be in a non-demeaning but more supportive followed by the accurate information. Some concepts may need more than one day or time to explain so make sure not to get tired going over something more than once to ensure clarity to your children.  

Keep the information that you share simple but accurate and at the level of development that your child will understand, making age-appropriate examples and analogies. As tempting and reassuring as it may sound, avoid making unrealistic and dangerous statements including telling them that they will not catch the virus, instead promote ways that you prevent and reduce chances of contracting the virus as a family including practicing the current recommended safety guidelines of washing and sanitizing hands, wearing masks and social distancing.

Teachers and parents are getting infected everyday with the rise of COVID-19, what would you say is the behaviour parents should look out for to see that something is wrong with their children?

You know your child the best and you will notice much earlier if something is wrong. Any signs of acute infection such as fever, cough, generalized body pains, headaches etc can cause a child to feel ill and lethargic. This can make them be more reserved than usual and not as active. They can become scared to tell you they have symptoms and make them withdraw or become angry and start acting out. Children can experience anxiety and panic just as acutely as adults and they can hide it better than adults. Hiding emotions doesn’t make them go away and this might blow up into emotional fears, anger or acting out.

In older children these fears can lead to anxiety, depression or self-destructive behaviour like drug abuse, alcohol abuse or even suicide. On some level, it depends on how the family and the community respond to protecting the children’s’ well-being during this difficult time. There are going to be many children who are going to be fine after this tumultuous period and there are going to be some children who may have a more acute response. They may have symptoms initially, maybe trouble sleeping or increased worry or increased behavioural outbursts.

How would a parent know if the child is experiencing anxiety or is affected health-wise by the COVID-19? what are the signs to look out for?

Symptoms for anxiety in children and adolescents are common and early detection is key to early interventions and treatment that may prevent it from becoming a full blown disorder. The diagnosis of an anxiety disorder can be made by a mental health professional trained in detection and diagnosis of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents and if you suspect one from your child it is important to seek professional help via your local clinic or family doctor. For a list of our practitioners: Click Here

Anxiety symptoms in the young may vary depending on age and other social and psychological factors that may be present and worsening the feelings of anxiety. You may suspect your child has anxiety when they feel sad or cry or display anger and frustration. You may notice that they may stop taking part in activities they would usually enjoy at home and school or in the community with their peers. They may withdraw and prefer being alone or just with you only, fearing or refusing to visit extended family members that they would usually visit.

In families where they may be more than one child or if there is intrusion of one’s personal space for many reasons including limited space and movement in the household, you may notice lots of sudden and constant arguing or fighting in the house, even towards you as the adults. Children may refuse their chores and start back chatting or being defiant to rules and instructions or disobey household rules.

It is important to keep an eye on the children’s vegetative functions including their sleep, their appetite and weight, their energy levels and their concentration and focus even at play. Play may become limited especially on the very young and adolescents may have reduced interest in social and peer interaction. However, some may want to break free from the indoors environment and may mix more with peers and may be vulnerable as they may start exploring on substances and unwanted behaviors.

At extreme levels children may even harm themselves and some may not want to continue to live due to the stresses of the current situation or even from the fears they may have about the virus or what they may have heard and learnt about someone who may have had the virus. Anxiety in children is usually accompanied by other mental health issues including depression and those with access may self-medicate with substances so please ensure to seek help from a mental health profession when in doubt or if your child’s symptoms are out of proportion from how you know them.

Some children are losing hope, they do not think their dreams are valid any more, they are losing parents and life’s uncertainty is driving them crazy. What would you say to those children and what help is available to them that you know of?

It’s essential that we respond to these children’s reactions in a supportive way, listen to their concerns and give them the extra time, love and attention. Listen to them and reassure them and if possible, make opportunities for the child to play and relax in a safe environment. Keep regular routines and schedules as far as possible, or help create new ones in a new environment including school.

Alerting the teacher about your concerns and being in close communication with them. Asking for assistance from family, religious leaders and teachers can assist with reassuring the child they are not alone. Contacting local social workers, your local general practitioners as well as pediatricians, psychologists and psychiatrists can assist with any concerns parents have during this unpredictable times and being referred to the necessary pathways the child and family may require. 

Accurate communication at the level of the child’s level of development may reduce such feelings of hopelessness. Ensuring the children also cooperate in the prescribed safety measures for controlling the pandemic may instill a sense of responsibility and they may feel that they are also contributing in the eradication process of the virus which in actual fact they would also be actively involved if they participated and this may instill a sense of hope as we all fight against the virus in unity.

Children may need to be reminded that although they may not get the full symptoms themselves, but that they can infect their parents and elders and so their involvement is very important will create a sense of care from them to their parents and loved ones. Constant communication about measures in place to fight the pandemic and explanation of our levels of lockdown can contribute in creating a sense of hope that we are gradually moving towards a place of hope and that although things seem to be at their worst now, some countries have managed to deal with the virus and that we too are headed that way so there is lots to look forward to. If you know any you can refer to past pandemics that we successfully treated and eradicated. Include talks about designated hospitals to treat the severely ill and ongoing research about a possible vaccine in the near future. The dreams of all children remain valid and communication from teachers and parents about continuity of life after the pandemic as a possibility is very important.

Possibly try and link what each career is currently contributing to fighting the pandemic from health professionals, IT specialists, business, leaders, educators etc and instill a sense of hope how they can contribute at the present and in future. The virus is upon us but should not be the only focus of families so engage in your usual activities including playing and bonding in safe practices and spaces. Learning at schools continues and should remain a positive and hope reinforcing environment.

Be kind to each other including oneself and play with safety measures in place with the young For children in distress and for those who have lost relatives and parents, support and help is available in many forms from parents and other family members, the community, NGO’s, health care and allied professionals both in the education department and local health sectors, churches and community leaders to mention but a few. However, such responsibilities to seek such interventions and platforms should not lie on the child but the carer or social worker in the case where one has no carer.

If you would like to speak to our specialists, please do not hesitate to contact  Dr Magula or Dr Vahed

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