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COVID Anxiety in Kids

Children battling ‘COVID fatigue’ may experience anxiety in different ways. Understanding signs of stress are essential to helping children cope with the pandemic.

Words by Matthew R. Gomez

While the COVID-19 pandemic has largely affected older, more vulnerable portions of our population, the virus and anxieties surrounding its presence are taking a toll on children as well. Now a full year after the start of the global pandemic, pediatric specialists have noted the mental strain on children caused by worry and lack of normative behavior and social interaction — the common patterns of home, school, and play.

Parental job losses, illnesses among family members and friends, and disruptions in school and sports schedules bring confusion and additional stress for young people. Many are unable to cope with all the changes.

Dr. Michael Westerveld, pediatric neuropsychologist and psychologist at AdventHealth for Children, recognizes the emotional and mental effects COVID-19 is having on children and adults. He said understanding the signs of stress and anxiety is essential to helping children cope with the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is emotionally draining, and parents need to be aware of the potential negative effects on kids,” he said. Westerveld suggested a sense of “COVID fatigue” exists surrounding the virus, and it’s having a yo-yo effect on emotions for all ages.

“Worries about the virus weigh heavily on our emotions, especially children,” Westerveld said. “Many adults don’t know how to express their own emotions surrounding COVID-19, so you can imagine what it must feel like to be dealing with it as a child.”

Unlike flu season and other annual health concerns, the threat of COVID-19 is not isolated to a few months on the calendar. “We are used to every year knowing there is a flu season coming up or that an allergy season is coming up, but there is a time limit,” Westerveld said. “COVID-19 has no time limit, and now there is an increased uncertainty and lack of control that contributes to this ambient level of stress all around us.”

Each child may experience stress in different ways, he said, which can make things particularly frustrating for parents.

“Kids will often show their stress, their feelings and frustrations through behaviors rather than through emotions,” Westerveld said. “Most emotions have a cognitive and physical component. Kids who are younger and who have not developed their cognitive skills may still feel it physically and act out.”

Signs of stress in children, according to Westerveld, may include tantrums, aggressive behavior (like bullying) and changes in physical habits like sleep or eating behaviors.
Additionally, some children may struggle with schoolwork during the pandemic or refuse to concentrate on studies when they have the opportunity. “Let them know that it’s OK to talk about it,” he said.

Dr. Westerveld offers these tips for parents to help children deal with the ill-effects of COVID fatigue:

• Provide them with structure. Give them opportunities for extra-curricular activities, whether they are learning from home or at school. Stick to a reliable routine.

• Be consistent and direct. Avoid ambiguity in your instructions to safeguard children from the virus.

• Model good behavior. Wear a mask often and stay physically distant to help mitigate the spread of the virus at home and elsewhere.

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Michael Westerveld, Medical Director of Neuropsychology for AdventHealth for Children, which appeared on the AdventHealth Morning Briefing (Oct. 29, 2020).

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