“What if you get sick? Why can’t I play with my friends? Will we have enough money to eat? What is a coronavirus? Mommy, I’m scared…”
These may be just some of the questions and comments you are hearing from your worried child during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a child psychologist and co-author of the new children’s book Shrinking the Worry Monster, I know that children are more anxious now than ever before. Our successful children’s book is the story of Worry Monster who tells children lies so they will worry, but he is finally is stopped by two brave kids who discover his secret.
But in the new reality of living with the coronavirus, what if some of the worries the kids hear from Worry Monster are true? Parents really could get sick. Kids aren’t seeing their friends. Kids have reasons to fear the virus. So can a book about a lying Worry Monster and the use of calming strategies still be helpful to children? Absolutely! In fact, worry-shrinking ideas are even more important to use now. The following research-based strategies are some of the best ways to reduce anxiety in your whole family.
Get Control of Your Own Anxiety
You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t anxious right now. But it is important for you to manage your own anxiety for the sake of both you and your children. Explore the topic online and you will find many good discussions on self-care, but you can also use the ideas described below for yourself. They really work!
Identify Your Child’s Worries
The goals here are to normalize your child’s worries and to acknowledge that some, but not all of their worries, could be real. Start by asking open-ended questions like the following:
- What do you know about COVID-19?
- How has your life changed because of the coronavirus?
- Tell me about your feelings.
- Many of us have worries about the virus right now, even Mom and Dad. Does it cause you any worry? If so, what are your worries?
Be very open and accepting of their answers. Remember that they are taking a risk in telling you their fears when they know you are already nervous. Don’t be surprised by any of their worries. Some will mirror yours and others will appear to have come out of nowhere and not make any sense to you. Treat each worry with respect.
Then take a sheet of paper and put a line down the middle. On the left side, you or your child write down the worries in a column. Then…
Divide the Worries into Very Realistic versus Less Realistic Worries
Now that you have a worry list, take each worry and talk about the probability of the worry really happening. Help your child rate each worry from one to five, with five being very likely. Put this number beside the worry. Next, have an open discussion about the worry by listening to your child’s viewpoint as well as offering your own calming suggestions. Then have your child re-rate the worry.
Let’s say the worry is “I won’t see my friends again.” Ask your child how likely that is and have them come up with an initial rating number. You might respond with a comment like “I bet we can think of ways to see your friends in a new way right now.”
You might talk about virtual meeting time with FaceTime or Zoom or seeing each other from a distance in a park. Encourage creative, yet safe ideas. Have your child re-rate the worry.
Don’t be surprised if the worry rating goes down after the discussion. Why? Because you have helped your child face the worry, talked about the low probability of the worry being completely true, and you have reassured your child that you will be there to keep her safe. You have become the source of facts, not fear.
Talk Back to the Worry
The next step can be very fun. In our book, we discuss talking back to Worry Monster who is trying to trick us with scary thoughts. Now it is your child’s turn to talk back to each worry. On the right side of your worry paper, have your child come up with responses to each worry. The goal is to reply to their exaggerated worry with a more measured, less reactive, and realistic response.
Here are some possible collective responses:
- I can see my friends over a screen.
- I will get to spend screen time with my grandparents who are teaching me to cook.
- It is fun to be home with my family.
- Most people aren’t going to get sick and most everyone who gets sick, will get better.
- There are smart people in charge of this problem.
- My parents and I already have a list of what fun things we are going to do together.
- Worry Monster, go jump in a lake!
Take Additional Steps to Be Healthy
There are many suggestions in the media about how to keep your child healthy and engaged with activities. Consider exercise, new skills like cooking, crafts, or gardening, kid’s yoga, meditation, daily talks with grandparents, or a family reading challenge. The possibilities are endless. It is important that you stay on a schedule and make sure everyone gets enough sleep.
Learning to shrink the Worry Monster has never been so important. Because of the coronavirus, our collective anxiety is very high. By using these research-based tools to help your child (and yourself) manage the worries, you and your child can reduce your concerns and even have fun together practicing them. Now is absolutely the best time to start Shrinking the Worry Monster!