Commentary

COVID-19 quarantine: Managing pediatric behavioral issues


 

My 12-year-old perfectionist is very stressed about getting her work done well now that she is home schooling. How do I help her relax?

Some children, especially our anxious perfectionists, may respond to the switch to home school with great effort and organization. These kids usually are not the ones parents worry about. But they are very prone to expanding anxiety without the regular support and feedback of teachers. The school environment naturally encourages their taking chances and normalizes the setbacks and failures that are an essential part of learning something new. At home, parents are inclined to let these kids work independently. But they benefit from regular check-ins that are not focused on work completion or scores. Instead, ask about what they are doing that is hardest, and let them teach you about it. Model how you approach a new challenge, and how you regroup and try again when you don’t get it right. Finally, this is a good age to start discussing “reasonable expectations.” No one can “do their best” all the time; not parents, not professional athletes, not even machines can sustain long bursts of maximum speed without problems. Help them to start experimenting with different speeds and levels of effort, and see how it feels.

My 10-year-old is very anxious about catching coronavirus or one of us catching it. How do I help ease her anxiety when there is no certainty about how to prevent it?

Anxiety is a normal response to a situation with as much uncertainty as this one. But some are prone to more profound anxiety, and parents may find they are doing a lot of reassuring throughout the day. For especially anxious children (and adults), accommodating the anxiety by avoiding the stressful situation is a common response that provides temporary relief. But accommodation and avoidance actually fuel anxiety, and make it harder and harder to manage. It is important to talk about the “accommodations” we all are doing, how masks are recommended to protect others (not ourselves) and to slow down the spread of a new illness so our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. It can seem counterintuitive, but rather than jumping to reassurance or dismissing their sense of risk, ask your children to play the full movie of what they are most worried about. What happens if they get sick? If you get sick? If they are worried about dying, go ahead and ask what they think happens then. You are demonstrating that you have confidence they can handle these feelings, and you are modeling curiosity – not avoidance – yourself. Correct any misunderstandings, check on facts together, acknowledge uncertainty. It also is very important for parents to assess whether their own anxiety level makes this task especially hard or may even be contributing to their children’s level of worry. Each of us is managing anxiety right now, and this moment presents an opportunity for all of us to learn about how we can face and bear it, learn to manage, and even master it.

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