Managing COVID-19 anxiety

COVID-19 is changing the way we live. Every day, we are adapting to new changes and overcoming new challenges to protect ourselves against this virus.  As paediatricians, we not only recognise the seriousness of these unprecedented events unfolding around the world but also the knock-on effect it is having on mental health.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rise across Australia, so too does the level of anxiety within the community. For many families, this will be compounded by concern for loved ones, social isolation and financial hardship.

Many parents, caregivers and teachers will also be facing the added challenge of managing the anxiety of children and young people in these challenging times. Children and adolescents may have a particularly hard time making sense of what’s happening given their lack of experience, developing brain maturation and inherent suggestibility.

Feelings of worry and unease in this situation are understandable and are normal, for both adults and children alike, but knowing how to address it is vital.

Children and young people react, in part, to what they see around them. They are very sensitive to adult and caregiver stress, so taking care of ourselves is integral to taking care of them.  

It is important that we play our part, as adults, to model our behaviours and responses in a sensible and thoughtful way.

It is also important that you actively listen to your child’s worries and are proactive in talking to them about the facts regarding coronavirus. Reassure them that they are safe and help them to understand the situation in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Here are a few helpful strategies and resources to help manage child, adolescent and parental anxiety:

  • Tune-in

Don’t be afraid to talk to your child about the pandemic. They have definitely heard about coronavirus and need a safe space to share their feelings. Many children’s extracurricular activities are being cancelled, schools are transitioning to online teaching and the media is continuing to stream information about COVID-19 at pace. Children may also be worried about how the virus will affect their mum and dad as well as their grandparents.

As parents you should offer stability and reassurance during this time. Take a break from the continual media coverage of coronavirus at home, engage children with simple play and regular conversations and continue routines and physical activity at home. Take the opportunity of social distancing to connect with your children about topics that do not include COVID-19.

This guide provides some useful tips on how to talk to your child about coronavirus.

  • Routine

Children thrive when they have structure in their day.  Imagine a river with no banks - there is nothing to contain the creative flow of water. Routines teach kids how to constructively manage themselves and predictability helps them to feel calm and purposeful. AHA Parenting is a wonderful resource for parents looking to implement routine at home.

  • Mindfulness

Young people who overthink situations or life events are at higher risk of mental health problems. Helping adolescents to practice mindfulness and learning to focus on the present moment will help overcome overriding, negative thoughts. 

Self-care is a daily practice and young people will benefit from positive, everyday habits that build healthy bodies and minds.  Evidence-based apps like Headspace, Smiling Mind and Calm, both available on Android and Apple stores, provide directed exercises that you can do with your adolescent and on your own. Encourage morning rituals to help focus and direct energy towards meaningful activities, and mindfulness breaks to reset and wind down in the evenings.   

  • Self-Care

During a safety briefing on a plane you are instructed to put on the oxygen mask first before assisting others, and this is a perfect metaphor for self-care – look after yourself so you can better look after others.

Everybody practices self-care differently, so it is important to find what works for you and create achievable ‘micro-moments’ of self-care. Staying active at home is particularly important to maintain good health, and relatively easy due to YouTube and fitness apps (eg Nike training club).

Try listening to your favourite playlist while you’re in the shower, light a candle with your favourite scent, read something uplifting, practice mindfulness or relaxation together as a family, and keep a balanced diet. ReachOut has some great ideas of how to take care of yourself.

See more resources

We are fortunate in Australia to have a robust healthcare system that is well positioned to weather this pandemic and by working together, looking out for each other and looking after ourselves, we can help slow the spread. But

This is one of those few times in our lives that an equally unified community response will halt the spread of this disease and will save lives.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling there is help available:

  • Speak to your GP
  • Mental Health Hotline (24 hr) 1800 011 511
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

Dr Vikram Palit, Dr Bronwyn Milne, A/Prof Susan Towns, Popi Iatrou and Nadishani Fernando
Adolescent Medicine Unit
Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

Learn more about...

  • Remain extra vigilant with your kids during isolation

  • COVID-19: Advice for chronically ill children

  • A special COVID-19 message from Chief Paediatrician Dr Matthew O’Meara