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'A little bit of worry is OK': 4 ways parents can ease kids' coronavirus anxiety

Teaching children how to cope with stress related to coronavirus will give them coping skills to help them throughout their lives.
/ Source: TODAY

Every day the news about coronavirus sounds worse. It’s normal to experience concern during unsettling times, but some children might need more help managing the anxiety they experience.

“A little bit of worry or maybe even more than a little bit of worry is OK,” Molly Gardner, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told TODAY. “We know that a little bit of worry helps us do the things we need to do like wash our hands or stay away from sick people.”

But sometimes worry turns to anxiety and children might need help processing that.

“When it gets to the point where kids really seem to constantly have this on their mind, they’re talking a lot about it, having trouble sleeping, seeming clingy...then it is OK to ask for a little bit of help,” Gardner said.

One problem children (and adults) face with the COVID-19 pandemic is the unknown. There is so much that people don’t understand about the virus, the pandemic or even how long social distancing will last.

“When we don’t know what is going on,” Gardner said, “that is when chaos can happen.”

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, said the coronavirus pandemic provides parents a chance to “help children manage uncertainty and teach them skills they need.”

The experts agree that parents need to process their feelings before they talk to their children. Parents need to chat with their friends — not their children — about their concerns and take care of themselves.

“It’s important for parents to do things that make them feel better,” Gardner said. “Keeping up with those things that make us happy, that is important for parents and that is going to have that downstream positive effect for their kids.”

Gilboa shares four strategies that parents can use to help a child manage their anxiety.

1. Find out what your kids know

She recommends first asking children what they know about coronavirus.

“You can correct misinformation so you can learn together,” she told TODAY Parents. “We can start to let our feelings be informed by facts.”

Asking children where they learned something and why they trust that source can help teach them how to evaluate between legitimate news stories and hoaxes. This is a skill they’ll need throughout their lives. And, this gives parents a chance to address news that might be increasing a child’s anxiety. But it is important to listen to their feelings without discounting them.

“Have empathy for your kids’ feelings, not telling them their feelings are wrong,” she said.

2. Figure out what children need to feel safe

Some children might worry that friendships have suffered without school. Some might feel upset that they’ve lost a year of playing sports or events, such as prom or graduation. That’s why it is that important parents ask their children what they're worried about losing.

“This is the first thing we do, we count the loss,” Gilboa explained. “We have to be able to figure out what we need to feel safe.”

Then parents can help their children manage that loss. Maybe virtual play dates reassure a child that their friendships will last. Or encouraging a child to practice soccer drills can help them focus on sharpening skills even though the season is canceled.

3. Focus on what we can control

While some kids might not care about missing school others might be fixated on it. There's nothing parents can do about school closures, so they should instead focus on what they can do to battle the pandemic: practicing social distancing, washing their hands or covering a cough or sneeze.

“Another thing children can control is paying attention to their body. Let an adult know if you don’t feel good. Pet animals, not people. Keep your hands to yourself,” she said.

She also recommends that parents “don’t make promises they can’t keep.” If a birthday party is canceled, don't tell the child it will be rescheduled in two weeks when it remains unclear how long businesses will be closed.

“Say ‘I hope. I think. I am not sure,'” she said. “Don’t make promises you can’t control.”

4. Give them skills to cope

This is a perfect time for parents to help their children develop positive coping mechanisms.

“Keep a list on the fridge of the stuff that makes you feel better, safe and healthy to do,” Gilboa said.

Having a longer list makes it easier for children to cope. Exercise, drinking water, watching favorite YouTube videos or video chatting with a loved one are all examples of activities that children might enjoy that will help them grapple with anxiety.

"This won’t just help your kids manage this stressor — it will help them cope for the rest of their lives," Gilboa said.

This article was published in March 2020 and has been updated.