It’s important to recognize that pre-school age children are quick to recognize anxiety exhibited by their parents, older siblings and other adults that are part of their lives. They likely won’t understand the underlying issues driving that anxiety, but they’ll feel it and may react if not provided with tools to cope with what’s going around them. During these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is especially true. But it applies to other big changes in their lives like divorce, the death of a loved one, a parent’s job loss and more.
Without appropriate reassurances, pre-schoolers may regress to thumb sucking, bed wetting, more frequent crying, clinginess, fear, other emotional outbursts or any combination of these coping mechanisms. This is because they haven’t developed their own coping skills and still rely on others for this kind of support.
That’s why it’s important for adults to know how reassure young children. Start with hugs and cuddling. And with a calm voice and demeanor, ask them how they’re feeling. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and even to ask questions about whatever is troubling them. It is essential to provide them with simple but truthful answers, leaving out details which are or may be scary and frightening. Be honest too if you don’t have an answer. You can respond that you don’t know but that you’re there for them and will keep them safe.
While it’s always important to encourage conversation, sometimes you can introduce other activities into the process of talking about what’s bothering them. For example, baking cookies is an activity that’s fun and will reduce stress, fear and anxiety. In these days during the Coronavirus, making a game of wearing face shields and/or masks like a superhero will make it seem normal, not intimidating. Talking while taking a walk (with the dog if you have one) or going on a bike ride are other good activities. Dancing, jumping and singing are also great emotionally stabilizing things to do to reduce the anxiety kids feel from others in their lives.
Remember that these are not meant to ignore the issues they’re feeling, but rather tools to make them fell less afraid and more comfortable talking about them. And during this process, you still need to let them know it’s okay to feel bad and you’ll be there for them no matter what.
Finally, recognize that this may be a time to reduce your expectations about your kids performance at school and/or chores at home. This doesn’t mean they should not be given these “growing up” responsibilities. It does mean that if they don’t succeed at a task, it’s best not to scold, discipline or do anything other than to encourage them to do better next time.
For the most significant problems of course, parents, older family members, teachers and other adults in their lives should be cognizant of the depth of any child’s anxiety. If severe, don’t hesitate to engage a trained health care professional to help your child get past the severe reactions to serious adult issues.