Skip to contentSkip to search

Helping your child deal with anxious feelings in the face of COVID

Mental health · Sep 15, 2021

It has been a hard, stressful time for Canadian families trying to navigate life in a pandemic. Just as it seems we might be turning a corner, there is talk of another wave and restrictions may be tightened once again. Employers, educators and parents are continuously challenged to keep up with evolving public health directions.

At the same time, many companies are calling employees back to the office, and children have returned to the classroom.

As parents, you are no doubt worried about how all these changes will affect your children. After a summer of feeling relaxed at home, they may be anxious about being back in group settings where students are unvaccinated, or where masks and other COVID-related restrictions are unreliable. Children may be terrified of catching the virus and bringing it home, or getting sick themselves. Just being in the vicinity of an innocent sneeze can trigger anxious feelings.

It’s important for parents to validate and empathize with your child’s fears, while using practical strategies to help your child (and you) manage your worries as you try to return to the day-to-day rhythm of life in the time of COVID.

To worry is normal - to an extent

Everyone feels anxiety from time to time, particularly during times of uncertainty. Worrying helps keep us safe. It reminds us to watch for danger.

But anxiety becomes a problem when there isn’t any real danger, yet the worry persists. Fear becomes amplified, lasts longer than expected or makes one feel “out of control.” Anxiety can lead to a child being excessively upset or distressed, and unable to eat, sleep, focus and learn.

When you look at it through a COVID lens, the threat of a nasty, invisible virus has been lingering over us for more than a year and a half. The presence of COVID has permeated every aspect of our lives, making us leery of going out in public, afraid of human contact and obsessive about hygiene practices. If you’re feeling anxious at this time, imagine the weight that your anxious child may be carrying.

Be a calming influence

Anxiety can be transmitted to children unwittingly through parent behaviours. Everything seen and heard is quickly absorbed and can be processed into a state of anxiety.

For example, children pick up on non-verbal cues like excessive handwashing or hand sanitizer use, or verbal cues such as warnings to stay away from potential dangers. Your child also looks to you for clues of reassurance.

Your child sees how you respond to certain situations and through you, learns whether something is scary or safe. When you’re modeling controlled, confident behaviour, it has a calming influence on those around you.

Ask questions and answer truthfully

Uncertainty is hard. Often just being heard is a comfort.

Ask your child what is concerning him, what he’s heard, and what he wants to know. Correct misinformation and set myths straight using simple facts delivered in an age-appropriate way.

Be honest and don’t try to shield him from the truth. If your child doesn’t hear the truth, he may imagine scenarios that are far worse than reality.

If you don’t have the answers, it’s ok to say you don’t know, but you’ll find out.

Try not to be dismissive. Telling your child that “there is nothing to worry about” is not helpful. Similarly, telling your child to calm down will not help him relax or feel calm.

Instead, acknowledge your child’s feelings and tell him that many people are anxious these days and concerned that they might get sick. Tell your child there are community helpers working together to help keep everyone safe.

Explain to your child that while we don’t know what will happen in the future, we know that washing our hands, wearing a mask, not touching our face, and keeping our distance from others helps to keep us safe.

As hard as it is, hold back on reassurance

If your child is repeatedly asking the same question, it is likely he is looking for reassurance. As a parent, you want to protect your child from the distress of fear and anxiety, particularly in these pandemic times. You want to reassure him that he won’t get sick even though in reality, you know you can’t guarantee it.

Over-reassuring your child is a bottomless pit that can never be filled. It’s a band-aid fix that actually fuels anxiety, making your child reliant on you rather than feeling empowered to manage his fear.

Holding back on reassurance is hard and goes against your natural instincts as a parent but it isn’t serving your child. When you hear the same question over and over, try this instead:

  • It sounds like anxiety acting up. What can you do to boss it back?

  • It sounds like the worries are whispering in your ear again. What can you do to trap them up or have some worry-free time right now?

  • I can hear that the worries are bugging you right now. Do you want a hug? I know that you can be brave and that you know the answer to that question already.

  • How likely is it that what you’re worried about is going to happen?

Encourage your child to ask himself these questions. As he becomes more practiced, he will rely on you less for reassurance.

Call anxiety what it is - a bully worrying your child

Externalize your child’s worries by naming it for what it is - a bully that is bossing your child (and you) around.

Ask your child to give it a name like Worry Monster, Worry Dragon, Worry Bully, or Mr. Worry. Once it becomes an identifiable persona, your child feels empowered to boss it back. Tell your child “I get worried sometimes too. But I don’t want to let the Worry Monster become the boss of me or take over because then I don’t get to have as much fun.”

Supporting your child in school

The new school year has begun. If you notice your child feels anxious about going to school, you can try these tips:

  • Establish a predictable routine. Get everything ready the night before. Set an early bedtime and spend a few minutes on snuggles and a chat about the next day. Remove all digital devices from the room. Rise at a time that allows for breakfast and an unhurried morning. Have a conversation with your child about the upcoming day while you’re walking or driving to school.

  • Work on the positives of going to school. Ask your child “What did you learn in school? Who did you play with at recess?” Each day, ask your child to list the positive things that happened in school.

  • Highlight the safe aspects. While you can’t promise your child won’t get sick, you can express confidence in the measures that the school is taking to protect the students. Tell your child that officials have planned for a safe return, and they wouldn’t open the schools if they didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Most importantly, if you notice that your child’s worrying is affecting his sleep, willingness to go to school or ability to focus, consult your family doctor or school counsellor who can connect you to professional resources in your area.

Groups in North Vancouver

Supporting children with anxiety and ADHD

Learn more

Helpful online resources

Anxiety Canada

Canadian Mental Health Association website (CMHA)

Mindshift App

Calm App

Wellness Together Canada

School Mental Health Ontario

Authored by:
Dr. Susan Siklos
Psychologist and Lead for Child and Youth Mental Health

Share article: