The new school year is upon us just as the spread of the Delta variant and increased Covid-19 rates are hitting alarming highs. While the past year and a half has been very difficult for many of us, these new developments have added a new layer of stress and anxiety. Just a month or two ago, at the start of the summer many Americans hoped we were turning the bend and moving past the Pandemic. This is clearly not the case.
Many psychologists, educators and journalists have written about and discussed how Covid-19 has caused, contributed to and exacerbated many problems, including increased rates of anxiety. Concerns about the loss of in-person schooling have been discussed at great length, with the general consensus calling for a return to school for children, teens and college aged students. However, much controversy has ensued regarding the return to school. Colleges and universities are mandating students be vaccinated (as are some employers) and in some instances lawsuits were filed to block these orders (note: courts have ruled that universities and employers have the right to require vaccinations). Controversies about masking, particularly in school settings, have erupted and appear to continue unabated. These tensions, coupled with the politicization of the vaccines, masks and mandates have created a more fraught environment for all of us.
In response to concerns about Covid-19’s impact on children and adolescents a wide range of experts have generated resources and materials to assist children and teens. These materials include many mindfulness and relaxation strategies to reduce anxiety and levels of stress as well as many suggestions to facilitate more effective coping drawn from Cognitive Behavioral therapy and other treatment models. While these strategies are often useful for children and teens it is our experience that children and teens (and even young adults) often need and benefit from parental support and guidance. Psychologists have clearly established that adult stresses and anxieties clearly ripple through families, with children being most negatively impacted when their parents are struggling and when there is increased tension within the home. Conversely, when families cope more effectively with stresses children benefit (1, 2).
Our focus when working with anxious children and teens is not only to equip the young person with strategies to manage their anxiety, but also to explore how the family is coping with the Pandemic. When parents are stressed and anxious they inadvertently model this response to the stressor, in this case the Pandemic. It is not surprising to find that a child who is extremely anxious about Covid-19 has a parent who is highly anxious as well. In addition, when parents disagree about how to respond to the threat of Covid-19, whether it be masking or vaccinations, this can increase distress and anxiety for the child. When working with anxious and stressed children and teens we seek to expand the focus to the family context and strive to work to equip the child and family to cope more effectively.
A few principles stand out for us in working with children, teens and young adults who are struggling with anxiety and stress related to the Pandemic. First, the younger the child, the more reassurance and structure is needed. Children benefit from greater reassurance, and clear guidance. Parents can help their children by setting clear rules, enforcing them consistently and calmly (no different from how they address other issues). For example, it is quite appropriate to reassure an anxious 5 or 6 year old that “everyone will be fine” whereas teens and young adults will likely resent and dismiss such blandishments. Second, teens and young adults are more likely to benefit from an open discussion of their concerns and thoughts. Parents may need help tolerating and empathizing with their teens point of view, but understanding their adolescent’s perspective as well as allowing teenagers to “feel heard” provides a much stronger foundation for offering guidance and support regarding coping with the Pandemic. This goes for teens who are quite anxious as well as for ones who actively disregard any concerns associated with the Pandemic. Third, with teens parents still need to exercise their authority, and set rules just as they would for any other concern. It is not only our experience but a well-established principle, that when teens feel heard and parents respond in calm and consistent ways, parental authority is more likely to be respected and adhered to. In working to assist parents with this task we find that there are times when we have to assist parents in negotiating and resolving (or managing) their disagreements about how to respond to the Pandemic.
While we have our clear standards about how we as a staff approach the Pandemic (to put it simply, we go where the science leads) we take a non-judgmental and empathetic approach in our work. We want to hear out the concerns of our clients, understand their perspectives, and then assist them in working to make decisions that best serve their well-being and health, and the well-being and health of their children. Finally, we try to keep in mind that these are very difficult times for us as well as our clients and acknowledge that none of us have the perfect solutions to all of the challenges we now face.
- CDC website has links to multiple resources and information on Covid19 and coping. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html
- Mass. General Hospital’s website also contains links and ideas on coping anxiety related to Covid19. https://www.massgeneral.org/news/coronavirus/post-pandemic-anxiety-feeling-stressed-as-things-return-to-normal