When I started as a social worker at first year school with many years of experience in clinical settings, I was amazed at how many children came to my office with symptoms of anxiety.
Manifestations of anxiety can take many forms. In addition to the fact that some children have physical symptoms that cannot be attributed to a virus or disease, anxiety can also involve children who think disturbing thoughts and conjure up wild “what ifs.”
To make matters worse, I have met several children who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19. Grief increases the complexity of understanding the world around them.
Here are a few things that both parents and school staff can use when faced with a student struggling with anxiety thoughts.
1. Try breathing in your stomach. Ask the student to place one hand on the chest and one hand on the abdomen. Tell them to expand their abdomen instead of their chest with each inhalation. This teaches them to take deep breaths that can physiologically calm the mind and body.
Use mindfulness techniques. This can be like praying with the child or asking them to name things they are grateful for (it’s hard to be worried when they can articulate their blessings). Ask them to clear their minds and just imagine an empty space as long as they are able.
3. Help them put their concerns into perspective. Sometimes it can give reassurance just to say what their concerns are high and to have a supportive person to help them put things in perspective.
4. Have open conversations. Let them know that their concerns are valid and that you understand why they may be concerned. Assure them that it’s ok to talk about their concerns. We do not want children to feel anxious in order to feel anxious.
5. Name their concerns. One term I have often heard used is “the monster of concern.” Explain that this is a bully in our mind who is responsible for making them (and everyone else) think worrying thoughts. When these thoughts pop up, tell them to tell the worried monster to walk away!
6. Make a list of mastery activities. Listening to music, journaling, reading, physical activity and getting outside are all great options that can help students minimize anxious thoughts.
7. Model and teach healthy behaviors. Children need to see their caregivers model healthy ways to deal with worries and stress. They will learn from your example.
For the children I see, there are so many strangers. Will the school close again? Am I being cut off from family / friends? Will another important event be canceled? Am I getting sick? Are my loved ones getting sick? Children are still often isolated with events being canceled, quarantined and some personal activities taking place virtually. All of these factors contribute to the increase in anxiety that psychiatric professionals experience.
This is not an argument for or against the restrictions put in place because of Covid-19, but an attempt to raise awareness that the changes in our daily lives affect the mental health of our children. Teaching children how to deal with anxiety so that it does not get out of control is an important part of raising a child. Hopefully the above strategies can help the next time you have a child struggling with anxiety.
Kelly McClarnon, LCSW, is the Youth First Social Worker at Evansville Christian School in Warrick County. Youth First, Inc. is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth and families. Youth First provides 78 graduate social workers to 107 schools in 13 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 young people and families a year are served by Youth First’s school social work and after-school programs that prevent drug abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit youthfirstinc.org or call 812-421-8336.