When I was a teenager, a dominant fear was nuclear war. A vast and devastating World War Three was very possible, with visions of the planet being ravaged by a nuclear winter and society and civilisation breaking down. I heard messages about how to plan for a nuclear attack. My dreams often featured war and death.
When I was frightened, particularly when I’d woken from a bad dream, I needed my parents to reassure me. That it probably wouldn’t happen. That we would be OK. That things are rarely as bad as we fear. Crucially, that they were not worried. Even if they couldn’t honestly say “This will never happen”, they could convincingly say, “We do not believe it will happen.”
I needed to trust their calm voices, to look in their faces and see that their frowns were for trivia – my mother had cut her finger, my father had run out of sellotape, the cat had been sick, the dog was limping, I’d lost my library book, the weather forecast for the weekend was terrible, someone needed to go and buy milk before the shops shut, what time would we all need to get on the road to visit my grandfather and miss the worst of the traffic?
My parents gave me that reassurance. Their calm carrying on in the face of more than those trivia told me that, whatever I was worried about, they weren’t and they knew more than me so that was OK. They must be right. I knew they couldn’t guarantee anything but I could trust their risk assessment and share their hope.
When my anxiety rose, they met it with matter-of-factness, strength and distraction.
Today, young people need the same calm strength from their parents and the other adults around them. What they don’t need is to see or hear adults using catastrophising language, suggesting that we’re all going to die, or going to hell in a handcart, or heading for the apocalypse, or that somehow we are not capable as a human race to deal with whatever is round the corner. This is not about burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problems that will come when the coronavirus gets worse, as I’m sure it will: it’s right and proper for adults to plan ahead and to be as informed as possible. This is about not showing our fears but our strength, not our hopelessness but our hope, not our negativity but our resilience. This is about being responsible adults trying to avoid young people becoming beset by anxiety which they can’t direct.
Anxiety is useful when it has its evolved role: to spur us to take steps to protect ourselves and control our environment. So if anxiety about coronavirus prompts us to wash our hands, to follow guidelines, to prepare but not panic, to keep stocked up but not stockpile, then that’s good.
But when it makes young people fear for their lives and futures and for the survival of our society and our ways of life, that’s harmful. As parents and teachers we have a duty to be strong, calm, informed, practical and positive. Don’t feed young people’s nightmares: calm them with your adult resilience, wisdom, hope and calm strength.
Tips for calming children’s anxiety:
- Acknowledge, don’t dismiss their fear: “I understand your worry about XXX – it’s not a silly thing to worry about and I know it feels horrible, but let’s talk about what we can do about it”
- Answer their questions in an age-appropriate way, without overloading on detail – don’t lie but leave out what they’re not ready for
- If you have to acknowledge that a bad outcome might occur, balance it with the possible good outcome – yes, this might happen but so might this and wouldn’t that be great (and how can we help the good outcome, do you think?)
- Set it in the context of the fact that people have faced many crises and come through them
- Point out that living through difficult times can help us be resilient and become stronger
- Have things to look forward to – make a programme of a fun outing or event once a month and ask them to help plan it
- After you’ve explained something clearly and calmly, then distract with a different, engaging activity
- Find positive and practical things to do – even small things they can help with, which don’t have to be relevant to the thing you’re all worried about
- Talk (briefly) about what they/you will do if… (whatever they specifically worry about)
- Show your love often – a hug, words of praise, appreciation
- Help them perform a small act of kindness for someone else
- Don’t let This Thing be the biggest thing in their lives right now
With all the advice about hand-washing, and a natural, atavistic (and healthy) fear of disease, there is a risk that some people will become obsessive about hand-washing and that people with contamination-OCD may find their condition is triggered or exacerbated. Parents will need to keep an eye on this.
Top tip for anxiety:
Anxiety is an evolved survival mechanism and it primes us to act. That’s the point of it in evolutionary terms. So, if your child or teenager is still feeling anxious after your reassurances about COVID-19 (or whatever else they are worried about), finding something useful they can do will help diffuse the anxiety. For example, get them to research the medical guidelines for minimising the risk and make a plan of action for the family all to follow the advice. Or get them to make a shopping list of things the family would need if self-isolating. But then do something completely different and unrelated to the current worries, rather than letting them over-focus on this problem.
We don’t know everything that’s round the corner and we can’t pretend we do – when did we ever? – but we need to show young people that we can be strong in the face of whatever it is. And that worst fears are more often not realised. Reassurance and resilience: we can do this!
It really boils down to this: be careful not to fuel/trigger/exacerbate young people’s anxiety with your anxiety – it’s highly infectious.
Do tell me any stories about ways you’ve helped calm your children’s anxieties or any questions you have about anxiety and stress.