Coping With Worry & Anxiety About COVID-19

Coping With Worry & Anxiety About COVID-19

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the impact on New Zealand is unknown territory for all of us. It is perfectly normal and OK to feel anxiety when in a global pandemic. This can result in strong feelings, reactions, and changes in behaviour. There are a number of steps you can take to help your children, family/whānau and yourself.

5 ways to support your child’s mental health through COVID 19

Dr Hiran Thabrew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician at Starship Children's Hospital. He talks about 5 ways to support your child's mental health through COVID-19.

Key points to remember about coping with anxiety about COVID-19

  • it is normal for children, teens and adults to have strong feelings, reactions, and changes in behaviour when faced with uncertainty
  • children learn from their parents' responses, as well as what they see and hear in the media
  • limit the amount of information that your child has access to while still providing them with accurate information, suitable for their age
  • allow for family time and try to keep as many routines in place as possible, to provide a sense of safety and security

How can the COVID-19 environment affect my child?

Your child's age will have an impact on how they respond to the COVID-19 situation and what they need to help them to get through it.

The following can affect children:

  • other people's responses
  • what children see or hear through media and conversation

It's important to remember that if there is a change in your child's behaviour, it could be in response to what is happening around them.

Younger children

Younger children are less likely able to understand the news and the relative risk to themselves, their friends and family/whānau. This can cause a sense of panic.

Older children

The older a child, the more 'in-tune' they will be with their emotions and the easier it is for them to put feelings into words.

Children with an existing anxiety disorder or mental health condition

If your child or teen is already experiencing an anxiety disorder or mental health condition, they may be even more at risk of experiencing heightened distress and worry.

Watch Dr Hiran Thabrew (child and adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician) talk about what you can do if your child is already worried about COVID-19.

How can I help my child in this COVID-19 environment?

Your response, and that of other adults around your child, is very important. It influences how your child can cope. It is important to be aware of your own responses and emotional needs so that you can look after your child. There are some strategies to help children and teens.

Be calm yourself

For the latest, see NZ Government's Unite against COVID-19 website and Facebook page.

Children and teens look to the important adults around them to see how worried they should be. Although this can be very difficult, it's important to have and to show a sense of calm.

Control access to the media and limit conversations about COVID-19

COVID-19 is on every mainstream and social media platform. This information may not always be accurate. Mixed messages and constantly hearing about the risks of COVID-19 can increase anxiety and worry. It is important to control how much access your child has to the media. Your child's age will also affect how they can interpret the material that they see and hear.

When there is constant talk about something, we focus on it more and then think and worry about it more. This increases our belief that we are more at risk. This belief is unlikely to match the actual risk.

It is important to make sure that the information you access is coming from official sources such as the Ministry of Health.

Try and limit access to the news. Turn off alerts on your phones so you are in control of the information you receive. Turn off the radio when the news comes on. Be comfortable and confident in asking your friends, family/whānau or colleagues not to talk about the constant COVID-19 news around you or your loved ones. This will help you worry less and will also help others.

See the NZ Ministry of Health's website, Facebook page and Twitter channel.

Be honest

Be honest. Children's imagination and the fear of the unknown can be more overwhelming for children than the reality. Don't focus on the risk aspects of the situation. Talk about the people and services who are working to help control outbreaks and protect people from getting COVID-19. If you do not have answers, then it is OK to tell them that.

Talk and be prepared to answer questions

Ask your child or teen what they think and know. Start talking about the facts about COVID-19. Children ask questions to help them to make sense of the situation. Make sure you have read about the facts around COVID-19. Explain these in a simple way that is appropriate for your child's age, understanding and situation. Let them know that you are available if they have any questions or want to talk more.

Listen and acknowledge how your child is feeling

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Let them know that it is common to feel this way and that others are also having similar feelings. Reassure your child that they are loved, cared for and safe (in whatever realistic or truthful way they are).

Stick to routines and family systems

Stick to routines, including meal times and bedtimes as much as possible (even in self-isolation). This gives a sense of safety and security. Make sure there are family-based activities - not having plans for the day can increase worry and anxiety. Family-based activities will make children and teens feel like they are part of a unit and provide a sense of connectedness or togetherness.

Take action

Encourage your child to take action. This can create a sense of control and help if your child is experiencing a sense of helplessness. This might be drawing pictures about how:

  • your body fights infection
  • eating healthy food is important
  • washing hands is essential

You could ask your kids to teach you how they have learned to wash their hands at school (for example, singing happy birthday) or learn a fun new way together.

Look after yourself

As an adult, it is very important that you look after yourself as well. This can be difficult because your focus is often on the more vulnerable around you. You need to be in the best position possible so you can look after your child - it is about strengthening yourself so you can be strong for your child. Talk to other adults about your feelings and what is going on. Access support systems available to you and try to keep to as many routines as possible.

Watch Dr Hiran Thabrew (child and adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician) go through 10 tips for managing your own mental health during COVID-19.

When should I get professional help for my worried child in this COVID-19 environment?

If your child or teen is already under a counselling or mental health service, then it is important to talk to them about more specific ways to help your child.

You are the best support for your child or teen who is anxious and worried. Most young people's distress will improve with the love, care, and support from their family and whānau. Unfortunately, it's impossible to predict those small numbers of young people who will have significant ongoing emotional difficulties.

Some children will need to have support from professionals. If your child's responses are severe or ongoing, your child may need extra help to cope.

Help from mental health services may be more likely for children or young people:

  • with existing mental health difficulties
  • who have had previous mental health difficulties
  • whose parents are affected by mental health difficulties

If you are concerned, contact your family doctor who will be able to give you advice about what support is recommended and available.

Where can I go for more information and help for my worried child in this COVID-19 environment?

For COVID-19 health advice in New Zealand, call 0800 358 5453. For support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing, call or text 1737.

Healthline 0800 358 5453

For COVID-19 health advice in New Zealand, call 0800 358 5453. Make sure to only call for health-related information on COVID-19.

Call or text 1737

For support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing, you can call or text 1737 - free, anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - to talk with a trained counsellor.

COVID-19 website

For the latest information and advice, see the New Zealand Government's website, including their page for parents and caregivers

Ministry of Health website

See the Ministry of Health website's COVID-19 section, including their page COVID-19 - taking care of your mental wellbeing.

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand

See answers to frequently asked questions about looking after mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19. This includes the following sections:

  • should I talk to my tamariki/children about COVID-19 and how can I help my kids get through?
  • how can I practise tikanga while following health advice during COVID-19?

Are there any resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to my child?

People have been working to provide a range of resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to children - from videos for kids about the science behind coronavirus to online stories that can be important conversation starters in your household. See Resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to children.

This page last reviewed 26 March 2020.
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