Psychologist Offers Advice on Calming Kids’ Concerns

With schools closed and many parents out of work, Huntington psychologist Dr. Christie Sosnowski recently addressed how to handle children’s fears about the coronavirus pandemic.
 
  • Kids who are already prone to anxious thinking or have anxiety disorders are going to be more susceptible to playing out “worst case scenario” here, so if that is your child, you want to get ahead of things by providing them with updated information from reliable and trustworthy sources. You want to encourage them to be utilizing whatever their typical stress reduction strategies are on a regular basis. 
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  • Anxiety disorder or not, our brains do not like uncertainty or the unknown, so it is absolutely normal that people who may otherwise be calm or even tempered, are experiencing some level of stress right now. We are dealing with a new type of virus that we don’t have a reference point for and things seem to be changing daily. This is a recipe for disaster when it comes to heightened stress levels. Knowing that our brain is doing what it naturally and automatically does best-try and protect us-can help us put things into perspective. “Just because my brain is freaking out, doesn’t me mean I need to.”  Maintaining our own well being as parents is key in helping our children to the same.
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  • -For younger children, I would recommend keep them away from hearing or watching the news, as well as adult conversations about the virus. Do not think just because they are in the next room that they are not listening. I can guarantee they are. Instead, have upfront and factual conversations with them. They may be hearing things at school that may or may not be true, so as the parent, be the one to set the record straight. 
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  • -In these conversations focus on what we know so far-kids are actually pretty safe. The elderly, like grandmothers and grandfathers are the most at risk. This doesn’t mean their elderly loved ones will get sick, but it might mean if they are going to go see them they should make sure they are healthy before a visit.
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  • -If they have questions about school closing or being able to go places, reassure them that as soon as you know anything regarding these matters, this will be communicated to them- but that until then, everything will continue as normal. During a situation like this it is best to keep things as routine and familiar as possible. 
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  • -Help kids focus on what they have control over. Reminding them to wash their hands for the length of the ABC song, use a tissue if they need to wipe their face, if they sneeze or cough do so into their arm, if they feel sick they should stay home. 
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  • -Parents should set their own limits for themselves as well as for their kids around how much time they are spending reading or listening to information about the virus. Getting obsessive will trigger losing perspective which will lead to more anxiety. This also can take the form of setting boundaries with others who want to talk about it in front of your kids. If you feel the conversation is heading towards an inappropriate direction, set a limit to create healthy boundaries and protect your child from unnecessary worry. 
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  • – It is best to stick with what is known and not get into hypothetical situations with kids. A lot of wasted energy can be spent on worrying about things that have not happened. Redirect them by keeping them focused on doing the next right thing-getting homework done, helping out with dinner, hanging out with their friends, sticking with their extracurricular activities.
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  • -An important side note: clear up any questions that kids may have about any one ethnic group of people being more susceptible to this virus then others. There has been unfair treatment to certain groups of people, either blaming or making assumptions, that we do not want to pass onto our kids. Anyone can get this virus, regardless of where you are from or what your ethnic background is. 
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  • -Stress reduction strategies for kids: Breath-work-have them put a pillow or stuffed animal on their stomach and watch it rise and fall while they breathe in through their nose out of their mouth or “Smell the flower, blow the soup.” This encourages breathing from the abdomen and avoids shallow breathing. We know breathing in this fashion calms the limbic system/amygdala (part of our brain that is protective and emotional) and allows our frontal lobe-the thinking part of our brain-to come back online to engage in more reasoning, logic and problem solving.  Gratitude lists-what we focus on is what we get more of. So having kids spend a few minutes each day making a mental note, writing down or verbally sharing 3 to 5 things they are grateful for can shift their mood and redirect their thinking. These things can be big or small, but it is helpful and more meaningful when they can be specific. For example, instead of “my family” something like, “when mom helped me with my homework”.  Staying connected and sharing with people that are trustworthy-whether it be parents, peers, teachers, coaches or a therapist. Having someone to share your thoughts and feelings with can be a tremendous relief. For little ones who may not be very verbal about their feelings or fears, creating connected time to play each day,  without leading or directing them but leaving them to be the one in charge of the narrative, allows them the space to communicate whatever might be on their mind. 

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