By Kelly McClarnon, LCSW – February 17, 2022 –
When I started as a first year school social worker with years of experience in a clinical setting, I was surprised by how many kids were coming to my office with symptoms of anxiety.
Manifestations of anxiety can take on many forms. In addition to some children having physical symptoms that can’t be attributed to a virus or illness, anxiety may also involve kids thinking upsetting thoughts and conjuring up wild “what ifs.”
To make matters worse, I’ve met with several children who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19. Grief adds to the complexity of understanding the world around them.
Here are a few things both parents and school staff can utilize when faced with a student who is struggling with anxious thoughts.
- Try belly breathing. Ask the student to place a hand on their chest and a hand on their belly. Tell them to expand their belly instead of their chest with each inhale. This teaches them how to take deep breaths which can physiologically calm the mind and body.
- Use mindfulness techniques. This can look like praying with the child or asking them to name things they are thankful for (it’s hard to be worried when they can articulate their blessings). Ask them to clear their mind and just picture a blank space for as long as they are able.
- Help them put their worries into perspective. Sometimes just stating what their worries are out loud and having a supportive person help them put things into perspective can provide reassurance.
- Have open conversations. Let them know their concerns are valid and that you understand why they may be worried. Reassure them that it’s ok to talk about their worries. We do not want children to feel anxious about feeling anxious.
- Name their worries. One term that I’ve often heard used is “the worry monster.” Explain that this is a bully in our mind who is responsible for making them (and everyone else) think worrisome thoughts. When those thoughts come up, tell them to tell the worry monster to go away!
- Make a list of coping activities. Listening to music, journaling, reading, physical activity, and getting outside are all great outlets that can help students minimize anxious thoughts.
- Model and teach healthy behaviors. Children need to see their caregivers modeling healthy ways of managing worries and stress. They will learn from your example.
For the children I see, there are so many unknowns. Will school close again? Will I be cut off from family/friends? Will another important event be cancelled? Will I get sick? Will my loved ones get sick? Children are still often isolated with events being cancelled, quarantines, and some in-person activities taking place virtually. All these factors contribute to the increase in anxiety that mental health professionals are seeing.
This is not an argument for or against the restrictions put in place due to Covid-19, but an effort to raise awareness that the changes in our everyday lives are impacting our children’s mental health. Teaching children how to manage anxiety so it doesn’t spiral out of control is an important part of nurturing a child. Hopefully the strategies above can help the next time you have a child struggling with anxiety.