Stopping the Path Toward Illness Anxiety for Children Growing Up Amidst COVID-19
Fear and Change… A Note for Adults
I found myself driving home from work yesterday noticing the eariness from the significant reduction in traffic while listening to the increasing and swift changes happening in our community over the radio. Let’s call it as it is, weird and scary. This is new for everyone (unless, as my grandfather reminded me, you were around in the 1930s for the Polio epidemic). It also does not help that many movies portray the end of the world and the start of the zombie apocalypse to have an uncanny look to how our streets will in the next few weeks. So even though we are told that most healthy Americans will survive COVID-19, why are we running around like we won’t?
Fear is an evolutionary emotion. Our ancestors walked the earth afraid of falling prey to hundreds of terrifying animals (just do a Google image search of “prehistoric animals” to get a full sense of the beasts we are talking about here… sloths have not always been so cute). The emotion of fear would then produce a behavior that can be placed in the categories of flight (run), fight, or freeze (play dead and hope it goes away). Brains have been hardwired to survive, and although our environment has certainly changed over 200,000 years, our brains relatively have not. This is why, without having a mass epidemic present, we still get anxious about things. However, instead of worrying about a giant snake pouncing out of the tree to swallow us whole, we worry about perhaps more mundane topics like work, school, the Packer’s score, the weather, etc. Our ancestors were also able to do things to immediately reduce fear. If they were scared of the giant snake, they could run away, thus reducing fear. Many of the things we worry about today are about items that take time to resolve and are out of our control (read more here).
Another consideration is that fear preys on change. Change, even positive change, comes with uncertainty, discomfort and stress. So when fear senses that change is near, it gets ready to feed. It is also impossible to have change without some loss (which may cause emotions of sadness).
A saying that I find myself using daily is ‘fear finds a home’. We have all of this anxiety building daily and it needs someplace to go. Maybe you can relate to fearing about financing, work tasks, relationships. You may hear your child worrying about school or friends. All important topics, but usually not worth the amount of fear power we give them. So when something big comes along, like COVID-19 for instance, fear is ready. As our world continues to change, perhaps even some permanent changes, fear finds a home with the virus. We become obsessed with watching the news, talking about it with others, and maybe even start to feel the symptoms without being exposed. It causes us to run around buying toilet paper, pasta, and ramen like it is going out of style. Fear in our brain is jumping for joy as to say that all of the years of practicing worrying wasn’t for nothing.
Fear does have a place in our lives. We need fear to warn us to take immediate action to keep safe in dangerous situations. However, prolonged fear is not serving us when it comes to COVID-19. When we look at the facts (which fear often likes to ignore) there seems to be a lot about COVID-19 that we need to RESPECT, but not to fear. We can respect that COVID-19 can be deadly for vulnerable populations. We can respect that COVID-19 spreads rapidly. We can respect that we all are going to experience financial hardship, some more than others. We can respect that social distancing helps prevent the spread, and may cause discomfort for a while. We can find comfort in knowing that the risk for becoming seriously ill in the general population is relatively low, and that there are many things that can be done to keep healthy.
Once we reduce the power that fear attached to this virus has, we can make space to help others. Reach out to neighbors to find out if they need anything. Let people know if you are struggling to put food on the table. Support local businesses who are not able to have the customer base they are used to. Acknowledge your own feelings of sadness surrounding loss from change, and vulnerability of not knowing what the next week may look like. Reframe the situation that we are all in by looking for hope. This is a time where spirituality, not necessarily in the religious sense depending on your beliefs, is important to develop. We are all connected through this universal human experience; a sense of wholeness.
Impact on Children
Fear is perhaps more contagious than any virus out there. Children pick up on fear, and closely watch for the panic in adult reactions. This is evolutionary as well, since young children learn that they need adults to survive. My own professional fear is that we are paving a future for illness anxiety in our children. This could affect their mental health as well as strain the medical systems for years to come. To start prevention of future consequences to our present situation, we need to start the conversation about emotions with our kids. We need to help normalize the abnormal, and assist children in making factual meaning of the world’s reaction to COVID-19. Here are some suggestions:
- Talk to the children around you. Find out what they think they know about COVID-19. Because of developmental limitations, some children may think that COVID-19 will wrap its ugly arm around everyone they know and kill them. You can ask by saying: “There has been a lot of talk about Coronavirus. I want to know what you have heard.”
- Normalize and emphasize with any emotions. Kids may be feeling an array of emotions from scared, angry, happy, surprised, and sad. Reflect those emotions in response to what they know about COVID-19. This will help children place a label to something abstract, and feel less scary. Remember that all change comes with loss. Loss can produce feelings of sadness that are underneath the feelings of fear. Response example: “Wow, it sounds like what you know about COVID-19 could be really scary. Is that what it feels like inside?” or “It sounds like you are happy about getting a break from school, but are sad that you do not get to see your friends”.
- Provide accurate and factual information about COVID-19. Ask the child what they hear you saying to be sure that they do not misconstrue your words. All children have experienced being sick so you can normalize COVID-19 to that experience. For example, “Remember when you had a cold and fever? You did not feel very well. COVID-19 makes people feel the same way. If you, or someone in our family gets sick, we will feel like that. However, we will get healthy again… just like last time. Sometimes people, especially older people, or people who have health problems [clarify this as needed for age] have a harder time getting better from COVID-19. They will need to go to the hospital for help getting better. Sometimes they are unable to get better and could die. Doctors are doing everything they can to help these people. We are helping too by staying home more often so that germs don’t spread.”
- Discuss death. Even if kids do not talk about it outloud, it has been publicized enough for them to know the possibility. They may be too scared to talk about it without an adult initiating the conversation. A thought kids may have is that if they say it outloud it will happen and be their fault.
- Have the conversation more than once, but make sure to talk about other topics too! Only talking about the virus can produce more anxiety instead of reduce it. Take this time to learn about the culture of being a child! Promote creativity and join in on playing!
- Be aware of your own emotions and reactions. You may be scared, or sad about the changes (and remember, loss) that comes with change. Share these emotions with your child. “COVID-19 made me feel scared at first too. I am also really sad that we are not able to go out for dinner like we used to. However, I know that we are doing a lot to keep ourselves and other people healthy.”
- Get help if you find that your child, a family member, or even yourself is struggling to cope through these trying times. Talking with a professional can help us see things in a different way and feel better.
- Promote positive coping. Reframe the current situation by talking about the good things that are coming out of it too, such as more time together. Now is a great chance for kids to experiment with new activities (cook new meals, YouTube yoga/body scans, Pinterest projects, playing outside, start a garden, etc).