Child Washing Hands

Managing Children’s Anxiety Amid Our Current Health Crisis

By Moe Gelbart, PhD

Director of Practice Development, Community Psychiatry

Director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center

With the COVID-19 outbreak reaching new levels, we are experiencing something that none of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. With schools closing, people staying home, people working from home, some families seeing their incomes threatened, and health concerns being elevated, many of us are feeling fear, anxiety, and panic. Our concerns are valid, but this is also an opportunity to make smart choices, come together as a community, learn how to cope with uncertainty, and remind ourselves of what is really important.

I won’t spend much time here reviewing what we all know by now about hand washing, the signs/symptoms to be concerned about, social distancing, and everything else our incredibly great medical community has recommended to us. I will take a moment to express the community’s abundance of gratitude to our physicians, nurses, healthcare workers and all professionals doing everything in their power to keep us safe. Take pride in knowing the great impact of your work.

I’d like to focus now on the emotional toll this is taking on us, and more importantly, specific suggestions to deal with, cope with and reduce those concerns. This will be a difficult week…for you, your family and particularly your children. With most schools closing, children’s routines will be interrupted, as will parents who suddenly have their kids at home. Your children will have questions. Here are some suggestions:

Validate feelings. People’s fears and anxieties are real and need to be accepted by others as well as by themselves. Understanding and empathy are essential, so try not to tell someone they should not feel a certain way. Acceptance of someone’s feelings allows you to then build a bridge to rationally explore alternatives. When a child or other family member says “I’m scared,” telling them you understand how they feel will allow the two of you to explore other ways to look at something.

Avoid catastrophizing. When anxious, we tend to project into the future, creating stressful and fearful scenarios, many of which will never occur. I encourage people to avoid “what if” scenarios and replace them with “what is.” Trying to stay in the present gives us more control over what is going on, and a sense of control leads to reduced anxiety.

Learn to Reframe. How we see and perceive things determine how we feel. We have the ability to adjust our perception. Black/white, all or none thinking usually results in anxiety and fear, while learning to dilute and recognize the gray areas of life helps calm things down. Instead of “this will never be ok,” we can think “things are very bad right now, but there are things we can do to improve things, and we will eventually come through this.”

Control the things you can. Let go of what you have no control over. As I stated, anxiety and fears are directly related to not feeling in control. Trying to control things you have no control over will lead to heightened stress and anxiety. Assessing what you have control of, (like handwashing, not touching your face, avoiding crowds) and exercising that control will allow you to feel you are doing whatever you are capable of.

Emphasize Gratitude. Continually take inventory of what is good in your life, and allow yourself to experience and express gratitude. Doing so reduces stress and anxiety. Even in the most difficult of times, we have much to be grateful for.

For many of the challenges that lie ahead, I believe many of these thoughts will be helpful. As you approach difficult times, with kids at home and work being affected, use that time to do things you normally couldn’t do. Most of us are usually shuttling our kids to so many activities that we forget to relax and play. As we hunker down, we can do art and craft projects, read, play board games, play cards, take walks on the beach or parks, take drives, and participate in other safe activities. Try to avoid the easy route of parking your children in front of a screen for hours.

I have been the Director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center for 30 years. Our program utilizes the AA philosophy, which has great slogans to live your life by in general, but which are particularly useful at this time and have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol.

  • Easy Does It
  • One Day at a Time
  • Keep It Simple
  • Control the Things You Can, and Let Go of the Things You Don’t Have Control of.
  • This Too Shall Pass

We will get through this. We will be stronger, more compassionate and more understanding as a result. We will take care of ourselves, our families and our community.

Moe Gelbart, PhD

We are here for you. Community Psychiatry has more than 120 psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and therapists ready to help via telemedicine across California. Call us at (855) 427-2778 or visit communitypsychiatry.com.

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