It’s impossible to escape news about Covid-19 at the moment and for many, thoughts of how to handle personal risk factors, keep loved ones safe, and manage the everyday demands of life are dominant. Covid-19 anxiety appears to be widespread but how can we ensure that children don’t suffer at a time when questions are numerous but answers are hard to come by?
As the mum of six-year-old, I’m well aware of ensuring that my son isn’t consuming news about the virus to the extent that I am. It’s compelling to turn the volume up when Covid-19 is being discussed in the media but much of what is said it utterly irrelevant to him.
UKCP registered Psychotherapist, Supervisor and Training Professional Helen Davies, acknowledges how difficult it can be for any of us to avoid the national news or what is being reported in the media with so many ways of receiving or listening to press commentary. “So by default,” Davies explains, “it's difficult for our children to avoid this commentary as anyone with a bright child will tell you. However, this is especially true as we all may want to keep ourselves abreast of the developing concerns and actions related to this world pandemic.”
So how do we manage our children's anxiety? “Some children have already been instructed to wash their hands every hour,” Davies says, “and the sight of their red raw hands, and their cries of pain when washing sore hands can only affirm that this is already affecting them. What do we say? Children pick up communications in several different ways, and through all the significant people in their lives. Firstly, this happens through what we tell them, for example, we need to wash our hands to make sure we do not pass on germs to those whom we love and care about. Secondly, this happens by what we model to them, for example, here's how to worry about a potential illness, or here's how to show a healthy interest in taking care of ourselves. Thirdly, this happens somatically, where children sense something, but do not have the knowledge they are picking up anxiety or fear. What is commonly referred to as intuition.”
It is best to talk directly with children about anything they are anxious about. “Reflect their questions back to them,” suggests Davies, “thereby understanding what their concerns mean to them which may be very different from our own. We need to give them time, not rush them, but show them we are interested in their experiences. They are young people learning how to think, feel and behave in the world, and we can help them by modelling interest in their concerns as much as their activities.”
For many of us a pandemic such as this, which is being played out so dramatically in the media, is a new experience and it is clear from our behaviour (some people are stockpiling, some have detailed contingency plans, some are hoping to “take it on the chin” and so on) that we are dealing with the inherent tensions as adults in very different ways. However, it's well known that children often approach new experiences or difficulties in the world through fantasy and play. “By attuning to their fantasies and showing interest in their play we are modelling it's OK for them to explore what they know or don't know. And again, being curious about any concerns or miss-information,” explains Davies. “It is not a good idea to tell them untruths, or 'don't worry' when they clearly are. This teaches them not to trust their thoughts and feelings. Likewise, it's also not wise to escalate their concerns, but rather answer their questions whilst holding in mind how much you think your child may be able to receive. This will be unique for each child.”
“Ultimately the way that we talk with our children, and others, is the message they will receive,” Davies says. “If we panic and are fearful they will pick up the message to be panicky or fearful, no matter what the words we speak. If, however, we are calm in what we communicate, we implicitly offer reassurance and safety, in part what Bowlby called The Secure Base (Bowlby J (1988); A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory, Routledge, New York and London).”
In short, these strategies may help children to feel less anxiety about Covid-19:
- Aim to limit access to media reports about the virus that are not relevant, or age-appropriate, for the children you teach or care for.
- Be aware of what you say about the virus and how you behave. Children will usually pick up how they should respond from what is being modelled around them.
- Talk to children directly about any concerns they have. Reflect their concerns back to them.
- Allow children to work through their anxieties through fantasy and play.
- Answer questions directly to the extent that your audience can understand and absorb your responses.
- Be a “secure base” for the children in your care. Calm is the order of the day.
If your child or a child you teach is still highly anxious it may be that they need to consult a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist or a Family or Systemic Psychotherapist via the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy.
Helen Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Psychotherapy, Clinical Supervision and Training information can be found at www.helendavies.org.uk.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.