The coronavirus has upended our lives, and mental health support services have been inundated with calls for help managing fear and anxiety associated with the health and economic crises it has triggered.
While many adults are struggling to cope with uncertainty about the future, including money and health concerns, children and teenagers have also been affected by the upheaval.
Coronavirus-related anxiety can manifest in children and adolescents in a number of ways, explained QUT researcher Judith Howard, an expert in trauma-aware education.
Both children and teens can take their feelings of anxiety out on the adults around them.
They can act in ways that suggest they blame you for their worries,” Dr Howard said.
“This is very difficult to manage because it often feels so unfair. We need to remind ourselves that it is the ‘anxiety’ within the child that is speaking.”
Anxiety often shows itself in three different ways – ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ behavioural responses, she said.
Occasionally anxiety can also appear as someone being “unwell” with symptoms such as stomach aches.
The disruption to schooling, and separation from friends, may also be causing anxiety for some children and adolescents.
Anxiety in children
Dr Howard said anxiety in younger children can manifest in the following ways:
- Fight response: Children behave in challenging ways and become angry and defiant
- Freeze response: Children become quiet and difficult to reach
- Unwell response: Children show symptoms of illness, perhaps nausea or dizziness. Some seem quite OK on the outside, but inside their minds are racing and their stomachs are churning.
Anxiety in adolescents
Adolescents can show anxiety in similar ways to children, but their behaviours can become more difficult to manage, Dr Howard said.
Common manifestations of anxiety in teenagers are:
- Fight response: In adolescents, this can lead to physical or verbal aggression
- Flight response: Young people can literally take off – out of the classroom or school or home – with little explanation
- Freeze response: Young people can shut down psychologically, isolate themselves and, in very concerning circumstances, can think and act in impulsive or self-harmful ways.
Tips for parents and teachers
“Our children and young people need to know that the adults in their worlds remain their ‘safe havens’,” Dr Howard said.
They need to know that parents, carers, teachers and others are there to listen to their fears, to respond honestly, to help them understand what is happening, and to know that none of what has been going on will last forever.’’
It is important to take steps to help children and teenagers manage their anxiety, Dr Howard step.
One of the best ways was to do this is for parents, teachers, and carers to set a good example by managing their own anxiety.
It is very difficult to help someone who is suffering with anxiety if you are anxious yourself,” Dr Howard said.
Dr Howard’s tips for parents are:
- Examine your own thoughts. Are your thoughts negative self-talk like: ‘We are all going to get sick!’; ‘Our world will never be the same!’; or ‘This will never end!’?
- Replace negative thoughts with more productive self-talk, such as: ‘Some of us might get sick but we will deal with this’; ‘We will look after each other’; ‘Our world is different right now, but this won’t last forever’
- Look after yourself physically and emotionally. Include physical activity and calming activities in your daily routines and stay connected with your friends and family
- Be present for your children. Turn off the TV, phones and devices and dedicate time to just being with your children, playing with them and talking to them
- Remind your kids the world they knew before COVID-19 is still here, and they are still safe and loved
- Distract: Sometimes it’s great to just distract them from their concerns with purposefully, pleasurable activity. Maybe that’s a family movie night or baking a cake.
Dr Howard’s tips for teachers are:
- Take the time to listen to and acknowledge students’ concerns
- Be honest as you answer their questions but always reassure them things will improve with time
- Have fun: Make sure the school day includes engaging and pleasurable activity and does not focus too much on anxiety-producing topics
- Chat to highly anxious students individually where possible, as anxiety can be contagious among peer groups
- Be aware that some students might already be suffering from or have suffered from complex trauma (abuse, neglect, violence) and the current climate could be compounding that.
If you are concerned about your or a loved one’s mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14