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Techniques for helping children navigate anxiety related to COVID-19

By Celine Cluff and Victoria Kress September 29, 2020

Counselors are working hard to help children and families navigate the uncharted territories the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced. Many children, especially those who are already managing stressful situations, have experienced an uptick in anxiety this year due to the pandemic, the spotlight on racial injustices and ensuing conflicts, and the various related challenges 2020 has presented.

In this article, we discuss several strategies that counselors can use during these difficult times to help children manage their anxiety.

Clear communication

Children have many questions about the challenges we are currently facing. Adults should explain things to children in clear, concrete terms. For example, in trying to educate a 5-year-old on safety and the pandemic, it would be best to say something along these lines: “There is a virus that can make people sick, and we can catch it. It is important to wash your hands and to keep space between you and other people that is as long as your bed.”

Clear, open communication is key. Children are inquisitive by nature, and it is important to show them that an adult or caretaker is available for exchanges of information. Keeping that exchange simple and age appropriate will help set the child’s mind at ease without causing them unnecessary stress.

On the other hand, shutting down a child’s request for information (out of fear of upsetting them, for example) is not helpful to children. Having a dialogue with a child is always a good idea because it can alleviate some of the tension and turn it into an opportunity for connection and care.

Taming worry dragons

Jane Garland and Sandra Clark — creators of the Taming Worry Dragons: A Manual for Children, Parents and Other Coaches — provide one approach that can help children manage anxiety. A “worry dragon” is characterized by negative or unpleasant thoughts, scared feelings and worries that will not go away.

For some people, worry dragons show up only occasionally. For others, these creatures are constant companions. The dragons might even present themselves in a herd with some frequency.

It can be very tiring to spend so much energy worrying. Having worry dragons means that a person (or child) has a special talent, which is worrying all the time. These individuals are likely able to imagine the worst possible scenario for any situation and to see it in vivid color, with all the gory details.

Children can be taught that tame worry dragons do not scare people and, in fact, can even be useful. What follows are some tips and tricks on how to hone dragon-taming skills.

Scheduling

Children can learn to better manage anxiety through thought-stopping tools — such as dedicating time to worry. When children start worrying actively about topics such as death or the possibility of losing a caretaker or other loved one to COVID-19, this skill can prove useful. Note that this type of worrying typically starts around the ages of 4 or 5; this is when children become aware of mortality (nobody lives forever) and other realities. Mixing this realization with the active and vivid imagination of a child can lead to the creation of worry dragons.

Using an egg timer for “worry time” works well. If a child is repeatedly asking if they are going to be OK because they have been directly or indirectly exposed to news about the coronavirus, a parent or caretaker would get the timer and tell the child they can dedicate five minutes to worrying about the virus. Afterward, they are to leave worries about the virus behind and start doing something else. Because children like to know what happens next and respond well to routines, this technique can help them feel in better control of some of their unpleasant or unwanted emotions.

By using scheduling to integrate worrying into daily activities, the anxious child can take a proactive approach in taming their worries instead of the worries taking hold of the child’s mind at random times throughout the day (or night). 

Creative imagination

Another interactive way of helping children manage anxiety is to have them write or draw their worries on a piece of paper and toss them into a worry jar. By shrinking, harnessing, locking up or trapping worries in a small space such as a jar, the child can make the worries more approachable.

Another option is to buy some colorful miniature pompoms for the child, which they can then place into the jar. When the time comes to work with the jar (e.g., the child is worried about something in particular and cannot relax), the parent or caretaker would extend an invitation to the child to pick a color (or multiple colors) and talk about it as if it represented the worry they cannot let go. This approach helps distract the child (through the texture and visualization of the soft, fluffy, colorful pompoms) while still allowing them to process whatever is bothering them.

Creating a routine

Children thrive on routine, and they require scheduled downtime. Scheduling time to relax and recharge is vital to harmonious home life. A good place to start would be using some of the tools covered in this article in combination with giving the family time to connect, restore and feel love (preferably without the use of a tablet or other device).

The deepening of a connection to a loved one can be a reassuring experience when a child’s sense of safety has been compromised due to the unforeseen circumstances families find themselves in currently. The suggestions in this article were curated to help families navigate these challenging times together while equipping children with helpful tools to combat anxiety. These methods can be applied regardless of the source of anxiety because they are designed to increase the level of control in children who experience anxiety. Helping children hone these skills from an early age can equip them with valuable coping mechanisms to last a lifetime.

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Related reading, from Counseling Today columnist Cheryl Fisher: “The Counseling Connoisseur: How to talk to children about the coronavirus

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Celine Cluff is a registered clinical counselor practicing in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in psychoanalytic studies from Middlesex University in London and is currently completing her doctorate in occupational psychology. Her private practice focuses on family therapy, couples therapy and parenting challenges. Contact her at celine.cluff@yahoo.com.

Victoria Kress is a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published extensively on many topics related to counselor practice. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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