Anxious child? The do’s and don’ts

Posted on 26 February 2021

Children may find it difficult to explain how they’re feeling during this ongoing pandemic. Watch out for these signs of anxiety – and learn how to help them cope.

People of all ages continue to be affected by the upheaval and uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But as a parent dealing with the practical aspects of an unpredictable environment, it’s easy to overlook signs that your child may be suffering emotionally too. The main thing to remember is that children take their emotional cues from you, so it’s important to manage your own anxieties in a healthy way, remain calm, listen to their concerns, and reassure them as much as possible.

The best way to help your child manage their anxiety isn’t to try to remove the stressors that trigger it – in a pandemic, this is impossible, anyway – it’s to help them learn to identify and tolerate the negative emotions.

If your child is attending school ensure your child feels safe and secure about their classroom and routine. Children may be nervous or reluctant to go to school, especially if they’ve been learning at home for months. Remind them that rules such as wearing masks and social distancing in the playground are simply ways of looking after themselves and others.

‘It helps them know what’s to come throughout the day and what’s expected of them,’ says Lo-Mari Victor, an occupational therapist at Mediclinic Worcester. ‘If they have a structured routine, they have something familiar to hold on to that helps them cope with the stress and changes around them.’

As Ronel Groenewald, a psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley and Mediclinic Gariep explains, clues that your child might be suffering from anxiety are varied. “Some children will bite their nails or fidget; others might become irritable or forgetful,” she says. “Bed-wetting, loss of appetite and using the toilet frequently are other warning signs. Older children, including teenagers, tend to isolate when they feel anxious. Adolescents might voice anxiety and depression by saying, ‘I feel hopeless,’ or ‘What’s the point?’ Groenewald suggests helping your child recognise these warning signs and giving them ways to respond when signs appear.’

Try to avoid having adult-level conversations about COVID-19 around your child and monitor their exposure to media reports about the virus. Reassure them that the current situation isn’t forever. Gently correct any misconceptions they may have heard and encourage them to continue asking questions. You obviously don’t want to belittle their fears, but you also don’t want to amplify such fears.

Don’t simply tell them not to be anxious. “Remind your child of the practical steps they’re taking to stay safe as well, such as washing their hands frequently and practising physical distancing,” Groenewald suggests. “Asking them to draw their feelings – or teaching them how to practise deep-breathing techniques – can also help.” Encourage them to engage with friends and other family members – while maintaining a safe physical distance – and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if your child is displaying signs of severe anxiety.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.