Anxiety is a normal reaction any of us may have to an experience that is frightening. With so much national attention and 24-hour news coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, how parents help their child during this time can make a significant impact on how quickly and successfully the child is able to cope with their feelings and develop new skills for managing anxiety, now and in the future.
Seeing your child suffer any kind of emotional turmoil can be upsetting to parents. While you cannot protect them from every kind of hurt, there are some steps you can take to help ensure that they develop emotionally healthy responses to the situations they face, as well as equip them to manage anxious circumstances they will face in the future.
Listen to and respect your child’s feelings. Children need to feel accepted and know they can express emotions without being criticized or judged. Giving messages that indicate your child should just “get over it” or that they are weak only undermines your child’s self-confidence. Giving them the time and space to process their emotions with a compassionate ear can be one of the most helpful ways you can convey that you value and accept your child and their emotions.
Create a safe environment. This may include checking in with your child regularly, giving them a safe space and time to vent any fears or frustrations they have. Some of your child’s emotions may trigger some uncomfortable emotions of your own, so establishing a safe environment may also mean listening to some emotions that make you uncomfortable. You will have to avoid giving in to the temptation to change the subject or shut down your child before they are heard. Your child’s emotions are probably not on your schedule, so be open to being present for your child whenever they need you.
Stay calm. Children tend to pick up on their parents’ emotions. Sometimes, your own anxiety over a situation can contribute to the way your child responds, even when you think you are cleverly hiding your feelings. Allowing your child the freedom to appropriately discuss feelings may generate a sense of surprise, anger, fear, or disappointment on your part. As much as possible, maintain a calm demeanor so that your child does not feel judged for their feelings.
Set Limits. The ways you permit your child to express emotions should be within what is appropriate for their age and circumstances. It can be destructive to allow your child to violate appropriate limits in the hopes that they will feel better later. This only reinforces unhealthy methods of processing emotions. This is especially true when their anxiety comes out as anger, acting out, or self-destructive behavior. By the same token, avoid inadvertently reinforcing your child’s anxiety by being too accommodating. They do need to learn to continue to function, even when dealing with strong emotions.