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How to help the children: COVID-19 and health anxiety

covid-19 and mental illness

Children break. It isn’t the norm, but fragility has consequences. In the midst of COVID-19 we’re doing all we can to keep them physically safe. But what about emotionally and mentally? Here’s just one major area of concern…

‘Children may not always be able to describe or verbalise their concerns clearly, so we are looking for marked changes in behaviour or worries…’

Take a look at our buddy above. Cute kid. Of course, the mask is prominent, as we’d expect these days. Who knows what he makes of it, and the death threat behind it?

Perhaps he understands, and he’s okay with it. Maybe not.

I was a second-grader during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I didn’t understand the death threat, so I wasn’t okay with it. Those drills: sitting under my desk, walking home from school mid-morning with students from my neighborhood – in a straight line like soldiers. Yes, the memories.

But back to our buddy and his peers – even teens. What emotional and mental challenges has COVID-19 brought to their worlds?

Are we doing all we can to keep them safe?

COVID-19 health anxiety among children

Snooping around for article ideas over the weekend, a press release from the University of Bath caught my attention. Seems a team of Bath clinical psychologists published a study on how to respond to COVID-19 generated health anxieties among children and young people. Their work recently appeared in the journal Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

In the study, the Bath psychologists emphasized how health anxieties may be triggered by significant changes such as returning to school after a prolonged COVID-19 driven absence.

The team submitted that young people need time to readjust to routine and to deal with their emotions. For some, ongoing health concerns, triggered by the viral threat, hold the potential to be life-interfering. Therefore, parents and teachers need to be aware of telling signs.

Signs of COVID-19 stress in children

covid-19 and children

“Mommy, I don’t feel good.”

The team pointed-out that not all children and young people will experience or develop COVID-19 triggered health anxiety.

Many of them show incredible resilience. However, for some, especially those already vulnerable to worry and anxiety, the viral events can cause some unpleasant consequences.

Bath clinical psychologist Dr. Jo Daniels makes these important observations…

Children are not immune to worries about their health, or the health of those around them. It is essential that we are able to recognise when normal concerns around COVID become more problematic.

Signs of stress in children may include tummy ache, sleeping problems and not engaging in normally enjoyable activities; for those particularly affected by health related anxiety, you might expect to see excessive hand-washing, exaggerated avoidance of touching objects for fear of picking up the virus, or repeated reassurance-seeking from adults in addition to the usual signs of stress and worry.

Children may not always be able to describe or verbalise their concerns clearly, so we are looking for marked changes in behaviour or worries that get in the way of living life to the full. Teachers also now have a role in this when children return back to school, as they tend to know the children well and school is where they will be spending a large part of their day.

It’s important to note that the team suggest the health anxieties may be triggered by an immediate family member becoming ill. Elevated family tensions due to intense parental worry may also be a problem.

How to best intervene

According to Dr. Maria Loades, also a Bath psychologist…

As children and young people return to school, they need to have the opportunity to catch up, not just academically, but also socially and emotionally.

A big part of this is having the time and space to connect with one another, through play, which gives them a chance to process the emotions and to share their experiences with others. It will take time for children and young people to adjust. While we want to avoid pathologizing normal responses to the pandemic, in children and young people especially, it is vital to spot the signs and intervene early.

The team recommend that parents or teachers who notice that a child or young person is worried about health should offer the opportunity to talk about their worries by gently listening to their concerns. Then it’s about encouraging them to find ways to gradually face and overcome their fears.

When it comes to a child or young person seeking excessive reassurance from others, it’s important to remember that although this may help them in the short-term, it can keep their worries going over time.

Worrying about health at a time like this is understandable, and the team submit it’s important to work with young people to find ways to resolve and understand their worries. It may only take correcting misunderstandings surrounding COVID and the necessary precautions.

The team emphasize that although most children and young people will overcome their fears without specialist help, some may experience levels of anxiety that inhibit functioning and cause significant distress. When this occurs, it’s time to call on those specialists.

Thanks, docs

Yes, though it isn’t the norm, children break – they can be fragile. Of course, they’re also highly resilient, so even if trouble develops during these COVID times, a robust recovery can be expected.

But that’s if troubling signs are detected and addressed.

No doubt we do all we can to keep our children physically safe. Let’s make sure we’re doing the same for them emotionally and mentally.

I encourage you to read the entire press release on the University of Bath site. You’ll find a link to the published study, as well: “Early identification and treatment key in responding to COVID-19 health anxiety among children”

And don’t forget to explore and learn by perusing hundreds upon hundreds of Chipur titles.