How to help children manage their anxiety regarding the pandemic
In his book, The Stress Factor, Dr. Harry Stanton says that the great enemy of human health is not danger, an emotional convulsion or an occasional crisis (like that of the Coronavirus). On the contrary, it is the extended, unrelieved state of worry and anxiety. There is no doubt that the moments in which we are living are moments of worry and anxiety. Isolation, uncertainty, and changes in our routines power a state of worry that we have never experienced before. In the previous articles, we have explained how to see emotions as the messenger who wants to help us collect the experience we are living and what is important about it.
In today’s article, the question I will try to answer is the following: How can I help my children survive the crisis in which we are immersed? If it is not easy for adults to navigate the turbulent waters of this crisis, how can it be for our children’s fragile minds? It is very concerning the increased number of cases in children with serious anxiety problems. They are growing up in a volatile environment, where schools are closed, and there is no ability to go to the park to freely play their favorite sport. Their environment has changed overnight and now they wake up worrying about the Coronavirus catastrophe coming to their homes.
What are the symptoms that show us children are experiencing anxiety? Children may find it difficult to concentrate, they cannot sleep easily, wake up at night with nightmares, aren’t eating properly, they get angry and irritated quickly, and are out of control; they have negative thoughts, use the bathroom frequently, cry more than usual and they may have stomachaches or feel sick due to the stress they experience.
Even though parents may not feel capable of dealing with their child’s anxieties, they have the responsibility to look after the spiritual, physical and emotional development of their children. Many times, we emphasize that we must take care of the spiritual and physical aspects of our children’s lives. We do our best to get them to go to church with us and make sure that they eat well, but how committed are we to our children’s emotional growth, especially in Covid-19 times?
Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Marc Brackett, says parents are co-creating their children’s emotional system. The first school of emotional intelligence our children have is their homes. They learn to relate to the world around them through our glasses. The emotional dynamic that we experience in the Covid-19 pandemic is the same emotional dynamic that our children are going to experience in the present and even as adults. Experts in this matter indicate that 80% of success in life is linked to the emotional intelligence of the individual. That is why, in order to help our children to have emotional intelligence, as parents, we must first learn to regulate our emotions because we are role models for them.
How should we respond to signs of anxiety in our children?
The system God placed in our brains to process our emotions is an alarm or signal system that lets us know the experience we are living in, and it determines the way in which we will approach the task or situation we have in front of us. When parents try to read and interpret emotions in their children, it also sends a signal to their brains. For example, if I look at you and you are frowning, with anger showing on your face, the message my mind receives is “do not get any closer”. Normally, when we are dealing with adults, we can say, “this person needs space right now,” and our reaction is to provide the space the person is looking for.
When it comes to raising our children, our reactions must be different. When they experience emotions of anxiety, anger, or frustration, they are saying: I need you to get closer to me, not to get further away. For human beings, especially for children, emotional security is as important as eating. That is why when children experience a lack of emotional connection, their reaction is the same biological reaction that any human or mammal has: flee, fight or become paralyzed. Every father and mother must perceive the message that the child is sending through his/her emotions, get closer and not push them further away, in order to provide the emotional security that is so important for their survival.
Five tips to help your children manage their anxiety.
1. Model your stress tolerance in the Covid-19 pandemic
As parents we have the responsibility to be role models for our children to follow, and not only through direct interaction with them. The indirect interaction and their examples of how they handle their emotions, or experience the outside world, greatly influence the development of the personality and social skills of their children.
Model in your children’s lives the way you put into practice the strategies that we taught you in the previous articles. Strategies such as: diaphragmatic breathing, which is so important for us to connect with the neuro cortex of the brain, which is in charge of our decisions. You can model in your children how to manage stress through the anxiety box technique that we learned to do in the previous articles. You can even invite your children to help you in the project of preparing this box. The way you manage your stress will influence the response that your child will give to the crisis that he/she is experiencing today.
2. Explain your anxiety
Accepting the fact that we are human and full of limitations and imperfections makes us great. Our children need to see that reality that we often try to hide from them. Many parents hide their human frailty from their children and that is why children grow up not knowing how to express their emotions in times of crisis. For example, if at one point you lost control and yelled at your child because you were worried or anxious, later, you can go to him or her and recognize your mistake when managing your emotion, and, you can process that experience together taking accountability for the way you expressed your emotions. In the end, you can dialogue with your children about some more effective ways to deal with your emotions in the future. By talking to your children this way about your emotions, you are giving them permission to experience stress and anxiety, it also lets them know that stress can be managed.
3. Have an action plan against your anxiety
If you know that a situation is stressing you, you can plan beforehand how to manage this situation in a more functional way so that you do not have to regret later not handling the stressful situation more effectively. For example, if being confined causes stress and anxiety, and you notice that at the end of the day you do not have patience with your children or with yourself, you can plan certain activities to develop being around your house with your children. This way, you will be proactive and intentional in the way you manage your stress and model emotional intelligence in your children.
4. Find a support group
Try to find a support group for parents. Trying to be parents in these critical moments is not easy. Support groups have proven to be very effective in therapeutic treatments and self-help. Many churches have these community support groups. You can also find them on the internet. Or you can create a support group that meets through platforms like Zoom.
5. Teach them how to trust God in difficult times.
The last tip is the most important of all. Your relationship with God is the most powerful example you can give your children. The way you handle your stress and anxiety with the company of God is priceless for your children’s emotional and spiritual growth. Therefore, take time every day to pray and study the Bible with them. Talk about how God’s men handled their stress in difficult times and how God’s Word encourages you today and gives you hope for the future.
We all have times when we overreact, especially when we are under a lot of stress. But the good news is that we are more resilient than we imagine we are. We cannot change how we have reacted in the past, but we can change how we will react in the future. We can change the way we are manifesting our emotions. It is never too late to grow in your emotional intelligence and help your children grow. Your child’s brain is moldable, and the moment you begin to regulate your emotions in a more effective way, your child’s brain will reflect that change you are making. Today, may your desire be to let Jehovah build your house and help you be an example for your children in times of crisis.