Children need honest information, rather than to be shielded from reality
Anxiety is completely normal, especially in a time like the current COVID-19 crisis. But if children are not to be overwhelmed by anxiety, they need appropriate information and someone who takes their worries seriously, says Barbara Breuer-Radbruch, a German psychotherapist who works with children and adolescents.
Laura Millmann: Children are currently in a difficult situation. They aren’t allowed to see their friends or visit their grandparents, and it’s likely they’re being exposed to a constant stream of news about the coronavirus. Should parents worry about their children developing an anxiety disorder?
Barbara Breuer-Radbruch: No, given the current situation, it’s understandable that kids are sometimes frightened. It’s a normal response, and I would even say that it’s healthy. But parents should pay close attention to whether a child is experiencing reasonable, “normal” anxiety or the kind of fear that threatens the child’s well-being and could lead to panic or an anxiety disorder.
LM: What can parents do to help children cope with a sense of helplessness?
BB: In my practice, I always try to break down information into manageable units and explain the situation in an age-appropriate way: What is a virus, and why do we need to keep our distance from other people? This morning, for example, I explained this to a patient with the help of an image that is familiar to all of us: In the winter, when it’s cold, we can see the breath coming out of our mouths and how far it spreads. And right now the air we breathe out can be dangerous, which is why we need to practice social distancing. This is something that children can understand; it makes sense to them.
“Parents should share the latest information with their children, explaining it in a simple, matter-of-fact, and age-appropriate way. They also need to take their children’s concerns seriously and help them deal with what they are seeing and feeling.”
I would recommend that parents take a similar approach. They should share the latest information with their children, explaining it in a simple, matter-of-fact, and age-appropriate way. They also need to take their children’s concerns seriously and help them deal with what they are seeing and feeling. It is important, too, to make sure that children are not constantly bombarded with distressing news. But doing the opposite – shielding children from information – is not a solution, either. They know that something is going on.
LM: So children need to feel that they are being taken seriously. How can we give them that feeling?
BB: Parents shouldn’t minimize or dismiss their children’s worries. And, simply put, they shouldn’t lie to them! It’s important to communicate openly and avoid trivializing the situation. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t offer reassurance. Of course, parents can explain that children are generally not at risk. To combat a feeling of powerlessness, it’s also helpful to point out that there are certain things we can do. We can stay home and abide by the rules that have been put in place to protect us; this enables us to have at least a small effect on the course of the crisis.
Another idea is to set aside special “worry times.” Younger children might be encouraged to make a “worry box”; the idea is for them to write down or draw a picture of their worries on a piece of paper and put it in the box. Then, together, you can put aside those worries to make room for other thoughts.
LM: One last question, which relates to schools: Many teachers are in contact with their students online or providing emergency childcare. What advice do you have for them?
BB: Basically my advice would be the same. Teachers, too, need to respond to their students’ questions and concerns in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. In addition, they need to look after themselves. Children sense when teachers are upset. So teachers – and parents – should take their own worries seriously, calm themselves down and find ways to relax on a regular basis.
Barbara Breuer-Radbruch is a psychotherapist who works with children, adolescents and families in Magdeburg, Germany. Her practice includes patients ranging in age from birth to 21, some suffering from anxiety disorders. She also serves as vice chair of BKJ, Germany’s professional association of child and youth psychotherapists.