My children have been worried about the possibility of COVID cases getting bad again. What can I do to soothe them even when I don’t know what might happen?
This is a great question and one that is coming up frequently with many families.
While the past two years have felt like an eternity for most of us, it essentially HAS been an eternity for our preschool-aged children. Even for a 10-year-old, more than 20 percent of their life has occurred under a dark cloud of unprecedented uncertainty, fear and life-altering precautionary measures in response to a global pandemic. The reality is that most children have limited reference or memory of a pre-COVID world. A world where maskless people socializing was something that we often looked forward to. Prior to COVID, simple ailments such as coughs and runny noses were an inevitable part of living and interacting in a social environment.
As a cognitive behavioral psychologist specializing in working with children and families and advisory board member for Extraordinary Lives Foundation (ELF), Brett Patterson has seen an increase in anxiety and depression across all ages in what is now being called “the next pandemic.”
Children and adults alike are still experiencing caution, fear and uncertainty regarding potential spikes in COVID cases. It’s a new reality; previously benign experiences now elicit feelings of fear and anxiety. In clinical terms, it’s a “conditioned fear response.” Simply put, our brain is wired to associate any potential threat (real or perceived) with feelings of fear and/or anxiety. It actually helps us avoid dangerous situations (i.e. potential COVID exposure) for the basic goal of survival. Given the obvious evolutionary importance of survival, these fear-based associations are often established relatively quickly, easily and are likely to persist over time.
The good news is that these associations can be moderated. For some it may require research-supported treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), or hypnotherapy to name a few.
Other options are offered through Extraordinary Lives Foundation, an Orange County-based nonprofit with a mission to improve children’s mental health by supporting families with educational tools, resources and awareness events. Founder and CEO Mara James created the HUGS for Life Healing Center to bridge the gap between medical professionals and approved holistic healers. James says that there are several healing modalities that can help relieve fear and anxiety that is stored on a physical, cellular or subconscious level. The practitioners can work virtually and are achieving some amazing results in as little as one session.
Patterson emphasizes that the solutions for helping your children do not include denying the existence of any or all risks whatsoever. Given that we don’t really know what might happen in the future, we don’t want to numb our natural fear response and prevent it from doing its primary job of keeping us safe. Instead, we need to acknowledge and normalize the feelings of fear and anxiety, while also teaching our children how to balance those reactions with rational thoughts and responses.
We can do this through modeling, teaching and practicing mindful “risk versus reward” assessments. This involves:
- Catching ourselves feeling anxious or fearful
- Assessing the situation/information to determine actual risk
- Moderating our thoughts, feelings and responses accordingly
Given that the details of this process will look different for each family and child, it can often leave many parents continuing to wonder, “Am I doing this right?” When in doubt, Patterson suggests parents consider a series of questions designed to help them find their own direction and path:
- What is my child learning from the way things are currently being addressed?
- Is my current response teaching my child important life skills that will help prepare them to be a happy, healthy and high-functioning adult?
- Am I comfortable with the answers to the first two questions? If so, then I can persist down the current path.
- If not, what adjustments can I make that will help develop the important life skills that my child will need as they get older?
It’s important to trust your instincts as a parent. If you are struggling and feel as though the support and guidance of a professional might be helpful for you and/or your family, reach out for assistance through your physician, a behavior health specialist or with a healer through the HUGS for Life Healing Center at www.elfempowers.org. Patterson offers free parent support resources at www.drbrett.net.
Mara James is founder and CEO at Extraordinary Lives Foundation. www.elfempowers.org
Brett Patterson, Ph.D., is an advisory board member at Extraordinary Lives Foundation. He is also owner of Dr.Brett.Net and founder of Behavior Compass Academy, an online behavior education resource for parents and caregivers. www.progressiveinterventions.org