In today’s world where the coronavirus pandemic has stopped school, most travel, group activities, caused thousands of hospitalizations and deaths, anxiety has hit an all-time high. Many parents have turned to social media to discuss how their children are struggling to cope with the major changes in their lives. 

Angry, frustrated, weepy, tired, withdrawn, are some of the terms that I have seen come across my feed of late. I started to respond but quickly realized a short post wouldn’t suffice. I needed another way to discuss the topic. 

At a similar time my son was asked to write how he is feeling about the pandemic for distance learning/home school and as a nine-year-old third grader who does not like to write, I didn’t expect much meaningful to come out of it, but when I read his short paragraph I was moved by his poignant and emotional response:

“This is okay, we will be fine. We are here together and we are fine. This is really boring. I really miss my friends. I can’t be near my friends. There is less fun now. I don’t have anyone to play with. I don’t know, I don’t know what to say about it. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY ABOUT IT.  I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY ABOUT IT!!!! Why should I be questioning it anyway? It is getting worse, it is more scary.”

With that in mind I reached out to try to help with some guidance on how we as parents and medical professionals can help our children be more resilient in this very difficult, stressful, anxiety provoking time.

How many people are anxious? Ten percent of Americans have enough anxiety to be diagnosed with a disorder, but significantly more people have anxiety, especially in the last few months. This may not rise to the level of disorder but can still be something that needs addressed. 

Defining anxiety is a difficult task. In its simplest terms it can be defined as fear plus uncertainty. It is a normal emotion. There is an anatomical part of the brain that specifically produces the anxiety response.

It was placed there purposely to help us be prepared for stressful events. It is our alarm center. It helps us prepare for tests, speeches, and athletic events and avoid dangerous situations. Everyone gets anxious, you are not alone

Anxiety disorder is defined as anxiety that has been present more than six months in duration and most days of the week. We talk about it in terms of absenteeism and presenteeism. Absenteeism is about showing up. Did you miss events or activities because you were too anxious to attend? Presenteeism is about are you able to be present in the setting without your anxiety taking over?

Anxiety manifests as poor focus, irritability, poor sleep, or physical complaints like headache, chest pain, shortness of breath, fast heart rate, belly pain. It can be triggered by many things – school, fear of illness, fear of failure, or noise.

 If your child is experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety right now or has suffered from anxiety for a long time, there are things that parents can do to help.

What can parents do:

Better nutrition. There is no doubt that eating the right kinds of foods and the right amount of foods can be helpful. Think in terms of homemade, fresh ingredients without preservatives and added colors. Five servings of fruits and vegetables in a day is recommended. Avoid sugary drinks. Keep offering healthy options even if your child doesn’t say yes today, continued opportunity will help expand his palate down the road.

 Exercise is really important. Try to be active 60 minutes every day. Parents you CAN play with your kids.

Exercise doesn’t have to be team sports oriented. Play Tag, go hiking, have nerf gun fights in the back yard. These can all be fun and active.

 Sleep needs vary between people and age groups but in general 8-10 hours of sleep is needed in the pediatric age groups.

Make a routine, and keep to it for your child even during pandemic social distancing. 

Decrease screen time. That is a difficult task that we struggle with in our house. Don’t count education time but try to limit screen time to two hours a day. Also give yourself a break. No one is perfect. Know your child and how they respond to screen time. Take short breaks to get active or complete a chore before going back to that video game she loves so much. 

These suggestions apply to the parent as well. Children take their cues from their caretakers. Try to work on your emotional health; don’t abandon yourself for your kids. Remember the airline stewards always tell us to put on your oxygen mask before helping others put on their oxygen. The same can be said of parenting. Take care of your anxiety and you will be much more equipped to help your kids.

Expect effort not perfection from your children and yourself. 

— J. Michael Metts, DO FAAP practices at MercyOne Pediatrics in Pleasant Hill, Iowa