The key qualities of this pandemic—potential for harmful outcomes, uncontrollability, and uncertainty—are factors that can intensify worry and anxiety in people. Before “TMI” (too much information) was a popular cultural acronym, it was linked to heightened worry and anxiety, especially in those who struggle with information.
TMI is compounded by our constant exposure to information (TV, internet, social media), making it harder to discern fact from fiction about the current crisis. Now more than ever, while so many aspects of parenting are challenging, let’s focus here on parental handling of TMI, including how to talk to your child, since increased worry and anxiety is likely.
Children—especially young children and anxious-prone children—benefit from parental support and parental modeling of coping behaviors. They often look to their parents for how they should react or behave, and to determine how worried and anxious they should be. So, it’s helpful for parents to monitor their own responses and to be mindful of their conversations. Decades-old research tells us that coping models are superior to mastery models: parents shouldn’t behave in an unrealistic, fearless way but in a genuine way that displays adaptive coping. We are in uncharted territory, so it’s fine to let your child know how it is: we don’t have a lot of answers to our questions, but smart scientists and others are working hard to solve them.
How you manage information is important, too. Kids’ worry and anxiety can come from simply hearing information. This is why it’s often recommended that parents monitor and limit their child’s (and their own) intake of news and information, and to follow up with talking to them and answering their questions, being thoughtful not to trivialize, dismiss, or tell the child “stop thinking about it” or promise “everything will be fine.” Instead, acknowledge that it is hard not to think about what’s going.
Put a Stop To It
For over two decades in our work helping children learn how to self-manage distressing thoughts and feelings, it works well for children to STOP (as in stop or pause those rushing thoughts):
- S: Scared – recognize the feeling of being worried, anxious;
- T: Thoughts – notice the annoying thoughts;
- O: Other – what other things can you do or think about;
- P: Praise – I helped myself to not feel so upset; great job–praise myself.
The more children can practice self-management skills, just like they’d practice the piano or soccer, the more likely it is they will get better.
Since older children are probably sharing information with their friends, ask what the child is hearing (or mishearing, or not hearing) in an open-ended way instead of yes or no questions. It can help you figure out if what they’re hearing is exaggerated or ill-informed (if my parents sneeze, they have the virus and will die), hearing instructions that are not just innocuous, but could even be harmful (washing hands only works if you use chlorine bleach for 20 minutes), and to correct the what they hear with factual information.
Acknowledge that feeling worried or anxious is fully understandable, and help your child recognize that as uncertain and unpredictable as the current situation is, there are concrete things they can do to help themselves (for example, washing hands) and help others (for example, assisting with cleaning of surfaces) to help prevent harmful outcomes. These things can help enhance their sense of control and predictability, which can contribute to increased worry and anxiety if not managed.
Finally, for many children, some feelings of distress stem from extreme disappointment that essentially all events and activities—birthday parties, graduation parties, school plays, sport teams, musical lessons, the list goes on—are suspended indefinitely. In modern history, we never placed childhood on pause in such an extreme and pervasive manner. If we continue events virtually using things like Zoom and FaceTime when possible, we can create positivity by keeping up with familiar routines, which relates to control and predictability. And that’s better for everyone.
Wendy Silverman, PhD, is the Alfred A. Messer Professor in the Child Study Center, professor of psychology, and director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders. Her research focuses on the development of anxiety and mood disorders and developing treatments to alleviate them.