It’s natural if you go into high alert every time your kid gets a sore throat these days. We’ve all been affected by the emotional ups and downs brought on by COVID. “We’ve definitely seen an increase across the board with kids regarding health anxiety,” says Kelly Gilrain, Ph.D., director of psychological services and behavioral medicine at Cooper University Health Care in Camden. “There’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety about what could happen or what if something happens.” Should you worry your child is suffering from hypochondria? It turns out hypochondria is an outdated term that refers to health anxiety that inhibits a person from being able to function normally.
Here’s how to help your child deal with health anxiety in a positive way:
WATCH FOR SIGNS YOUR CHILD IS STRUGGLING
You may verbalize when you’re stressed, but it’s often a different story with kids. “Anxiety doesn’t look the same way in kids, especially those 10 years old and younger,” says Anna Malia Beckwith, MD, assistant vice present of ambulatory medical practices and section chief of developmental behavior pediatrics at Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick. “Kids may be irritable or have mood swings, or they may have physical symptoms including headaches or upset stomachs.” Middle schoolers and teens may also be moody, but they’re generally more self-aware and may say they’re worried or repeatedly check their symptoms online. Watch out for school performance issues or social isolation, when a child doesn’t want to take part in sports, band or other activities, says Gilrain.
SHOW KIDS HOW TO COPE
Some anxiety can be good for us. “It helps us make quick decisions, such as getting out of the way of a speeding car or kicking our brains into gear before a test,” says Gilrain. “The goal is not to get rid of stress from our lives, which is impossible, but learning how to handle stressful situations in an effective way.” For example, show kids there are some things we can do, such as wearing masks and washing our hands, to feel more in control.
If your child is anxious, ask: “Is something bothering you?” It’s fine to be honest about your own feelings. “We sometimes feel like we have to protect our kids and not talk about our own fears,” says Beckwith. “But it’s better to address them and show your kids how to handle these feelings. You want kids to see that worries are normal, but that you don’t let worries take over.” Helping kids learn they can handle uncomfortable emotions now will help them develop resilience for a lifetime.
STAY IN THE MOMENT
Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Anxiety of any sort is contagious, so if you find yourself getting ramped up, stop and take a deep breath. Then challenge your reaction: Is this really likely? “Your kids are watching you,” says Gilrain. “Show them that we don’t have to freak out every time someone has a sniffle, but that we can take appropriate actions.”
TAKE A BREAK FROM SCREEN TIME
A constant barrage of negative stories is not good for anyone, and frankly, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole as you doom scroll through the headlines. “You have to find what is reasonable and appropriate for your family in terms of limits,” says Gilrain. Then find a specific source or two of news you trust. With older kids, you can say something such as, “I’m only reading news once a day,” and explain why to drive home the point that boundaries are helpful. And model the behaviors you want your kids to emulate: At dinner, phones shouldn’t be on the table, and at night, charge devices in a central location, rather than in bedrooms.
STICK WITH ROUTINES
It’s important to create structure and predictability. Maintain regular bedtimes, meals and family play time, even if it’s only a quick walk after dinner, says Gilrain. It’s also important to make sure kids (and you!) are connecting socially with friends. Make a phone call to connect with a friend every week, chat and walk with neighbors or play a board game with your kids.
KNOW WHEN TO GET YOUR CHILD HELP
While it’s understandable that everyone—kids included— may be a little nervous about getting sick, your child should still be able to function on a day-to-day basis. If your child is able to go to school, participate in activities and is sleeping and eating as always, they are likely just fine. “But if there’s anything out of the ordinary for your child or that seems like a preoccupation with health, such as wanting to go to the doctor repeatedly or wear bandages all the time, it’s time to seek additional support,” says Gilrain.
“If your child is paralyzed by anxiety, refuses to go to school, has more frequent meltdowns, is self-isolating, or seems to have obsessive thoughts about COVID, it’s time to get additional support,” says Beckwith. Reach out to your pediatrician or school counselor to find local mental health resources. The silver lining is that by helping your kids figure out how to handle anxiety productively, you’re also preparing them for life in the real world.