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Anxiety Across the Family in COVID-19

Last week, my schedule allowed me to listen to the Town Hall presented by Anxiety Canada and their webinar guests, who were all specialists in anxiety. For anxiety in adults, there was Dr. Maureen Whittal of the Vancouver CBT Centre, for older adults Dr. Catherine Ayers from the University of California at San Diego, and for children, there was Dr. Roz Shafran from Great Ormond Children’s Hospital in the UK.

There were several valuable takeaways from the Town Hall that I’d like to share with you, plus several of my own thoughts and ideas from having been a nurse, counsellor, and early childhood researcher.

None of these sections are by any means exhaustive. This is just a brief overview of some of the concerns you may have across the family and some possible ways of coping. I plan on writing more per age and stage, but life is so busy right now that I wanted to be sure to at least get something out to help you. If you have any questions after reading this or would like more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

The Current State of Anxiety

Did you know that 1 in 4 people will have anxiety sufficient enough that it will interfere with how they live their daily lives? Sure, everyone gets anxious, but there’s a difference between feeling anxious and clinically diagnosed anxiety. Regardless of which you may encounter, either within yourself or in others, it is essential that we normalize the behaviour. Everyone gets anxious. 1 in 4 will develop anxiety. It is completely normal and understandable to feel anxious at times, and even more so right now, with the world in such an uncertain state.

Different people express their anxiety and symptoms differently. Some people may feel just the physical symptoms, such as racing hearts and feeling nauseated. But others, as we have seen and has been rampant in the news, have been hoarding – a natural extension of anxiety which is, after all, a flight-or-fight mechanism.

Anxiety in the Family

Younger Children and Middle Schoolers

Children are already dealing with the demands of school and schoolwork being upended – the mass confusion of how, when, where they will be taught and, almost more importantly, socialize, is still being figured out. Being with their parents for 24 hours a day, all of a sudden, can be a huge stressor on both the kids and their parents, especially in families who also aren’t necessarily used to being home during the day or being together for extended periods of time. Lastly, children are experiencing confusion and fear, and some of that is in witnessing the stress and fear of their parents. It’s a tough time for everyone.

parent holding child
Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

What can parents of younger children do?

  • Communicate the risk with your child at their level, in a way they’ll understand (see resources such as the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre at BC Children’s Hospital).
  • Don’t frighten them. Just talk to them normally as you would about washing their hands and not touching things in public.
  • Go over the rules clearly. Talk to them about it before you go out.
  • Show them pictures (depending on their age) of what to do and what not to do.
  • Create reward charts to help them be motivated to act safely.
  • If going out in public with them is unavoidable (single moms or dads going to the grocery stores, I see you and I feel your anxiety), don’t shout angrily at them about obeying once you’re in public. Just keep them close, remind them, and keep them safe, emotionally as well as physically.

Teens

Teens, as usual, tend to feel invincible and think that the COVID-19 illness doesn’t apply to them. “Even if I do get sick, it’ll be mild,” they’re likely thinking. The news reports haven’t helped. Initially, this was a virus reported as being worse for older adults. While that might be true, that is likely all the teens have heard, and not how more and more cases have appeared with younger people also contracting the illness. Besides, feeling invincible is typical adolescent behaviour given where they are at in their teenage brain development.

What can parents of teens do?

Parents, tell your teens that the statistics do apply to them as well. Tell them that the virus is indeed contracted by people of any age. They need to know that they are not invincible. You know your teen best, so you can gauge their own comfort level, but some may benefit from seeing the (visual) consequences coming out of other countries and cities. Images of people lined up in emergency rooms, news articles that teens have indeed contracted the coronavirus, show them the severity of the illness, death. Older teens can often handle it.

Make them obey the shelter-in-place and physical distancing rules of your area. Be firm. Explain that it’s the law. Also, give them other means to expend their energy. And importantly, give them someone to talk to.

Everyone

Regardless of your age or situation, there is no shortage of resources online for mental health services and to reduce isolation. Use your phone, text, iPad, FaceTime – both to contact mental health services and stay in touch with family members. A lot of service providers such as myself have moved to online video or phone counselling. Kids Help Phone (where I also volunteer) not only has the telephone line now, but also has had a texting service for a while too, so kids and teens can get support through messaging.

It’s important to remain virtually connected with your family members. Be present, but don’t just rehash bad news. Share your day, your news – not just the news, with your family members. It’s helpful to not only unburden yourself and to give yourself a sense of connectedness, but also to possibly help prevent depression in yourself or anyone you talk to. Plus, staying connected helps prevent mental decline in seniors.

Focus on what you can control, vs. what you cannot. That is to say, focus on your response to life as it currently is, vs. the virus. Despite the uncertainty in the world, you are still in control of how you act, of your relative level of optimism or pessimism, your acts of kindness towards yourself and each other, and your choices in everyday life. Don’t let the virus take control of your emotions, your sanity, and your relationships. Mind you, for those of us who have mental health diagnoses, that is easier said than done. But we all have control over our emotions and actions to at least some degree.

Maintain a routine, still get up and get dressed as if you were going to work. Maintaining a routine is very important for those of us with children.

Limit your intake of news, and when you do choose to consume it, ensure your news is from reputable sources.

Be compassionate. Be compassionate with yourself – indulge in Netflix/reading (mindless fluff is ok), chatting with friends, exercise. Be compassionate with others – remember this is worldwide. Compassion towards others, just like gratitude, helps with your own mental health as well as being beneficial to others. Understand that the fear-driven response of stocking up on toilet paper, etc., is not the same as true hoarding, which is a mental health issue related to obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Older Adults

older adults

If you are a senior or have older adults in your family, understand that seniors may not want to change their routines. Some may even assert that they’ve lived through worse (such as wartime) and that they aren’t afraid of this outbreak. Gently explain to them that they can resume their normal lives when the outbreak is over and that it’s for everyone’s safety to stay in place, not just their own.

As previously mentioned, maintain communication with your loved ones using whatever means you can.

Take-Home Message

Life is not the way we’re used to living it.
It will get better in time.
In the meanwhile, we need to do whatever we can to be good to ourselves and each other, and make the best of it.
And if you need to talk to someone, reach out. We’re all in this together.

Anxiety Across the Family in COVID-19
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