My son had been sick with a cold for a few days. One morning he woke with a mild fever, so I decided to keep him home from school.
“Mom, do I have the coronavirus?”
I stopped the dishes I was doing and turned around to see my eleven-year-old son. His body was shaking. Tears brimmed his eyes. I quickly realized that my son was not asking from a place of play, but rather a place of fear. Surprised by his question, I muttered, “Wh-what?”
He asked again. This time the tears he was holding fell like rain down his cheeks. He began to sob. “Do I have the coronavirus?”
I embraced him in my arms and gently rubbed his back. I knew that my son had heard of the coronavirus and that it was a hot topic at school. I was also aware that he had overheard my husband and I chat about it at dinner, too. What I didn’t know was that my son was holding onto a fear of contracting the coronavirus, and attributing his cold symptoms to it. It never crossed my mind that he would make that connection.
My mama instinct was to tell him that there was no way he had the virus; to full on dismiss, deny, and explain away his fears as being completely improbable if not impossible. It hurt to see him hurting and I immediately wanted to say or do anything I could to make his fears go away.
As a parent, what do you do when your child comes to you with these types of fears - fears that are out of their control - things like fires, global warming, and viral outbreaks? I wanted to equip myself with tools to validate my son’s feelings, to help him understand he was safe, and to help him work through his fears in a healthy way.
The first word I googled was “anxiety.” From everything I read, varying levels of fear and anxiety are present and normal through various stages of development.
- Our babies experience it as they begin to recognize mom and dad. They can become fearful and anxious when separated from their parents or around unfamiliar faces.
- Toddlers often have vivid imaginations, which may make it difficult to distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. Toddlers often fear things such as shadows in the dark, loud thunderstorms, and, sometimes, they have irrational fears such as being sucked down the toilet (a personal childhood fear of mine).
- As children begin to mature, fears become more reality-based and can include a wide array of topics including death, their parents getting a divorce, and experiences highlighted in the media.
Ok, so when does anxiety become more than just a developmental milestone? I read on.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, statistics show that 1 in 8 children have some type of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when fears, worries, or anxiety occur outside the range of normal developmental responses or cause significant distress or impairment in functioning in home, school, and social settings. In anxiety disorders, the fear response is either out of proportion to a stressor or occurs when there is no threat. Anxiety disorders can surface as early as the preschool years, but the condition generally does not cause substantial impairment until school age.
This was great information. But how did it relate to my child? Did he have anxiety? And what could I do about it? I felt desperate to learn more and determined to help my son.
During my search, I ran into information from a doctor, Daniel Seigel. According to Dr. Seigel, in order to help our children understand and navigate their fears, it is first helpful to understand the brain. I read on as he described the two halves of the brain: the left and the right. Dr. Seigel states that the right side of the brain processes our emotions and autobiographical memories while our left side makes sense of these feelings and recollections. Together the two sides of the brain tell us the stories that shape our views of ourselves and of the world around us.
This finding was huge for me. How could I help my child’s emotional and logical brains connect to make sense of a situation, to help name and tame his fears? This was the big question. My goal was not to deny his fears or even solve his fears. Rather, my goal was to teach him tools to identify his emotions, notice his fears, and decide what to do with them. Simply telling my child that he didn’t have the coronavirus was not building his brain nor was it setting him up for life-long regulation skills.
So what could I do? I was back to more research, exhausting every resource I could think of. It was an all-hands-on-deck type of situation. I reached out to family, to therapists, to our pediatrician, and even Generation Mindful’s founder, Suzanne Tucker.
With everyone’s efforts, I made a list of these tools:
- Validate emotions: As parents, we sometimes slip into the pitfall of dismissing our child’s fears as irrational or unfounded, however, one of the most healing tools we can use is to affirm that we hear our child’s fears and that their emotions are valid.
- Use storytelling: This goes back to Dr. Daniel Seigel's work about the right and left brains. My son was clearly having big right-brain emotions about his fear of having the coronavirus. As parents, we can help integrate the right, emotional side of the brain with the left, logical side of the brain so that our child can begin to understand the experience. To do this, we can encourage our child to retell the story surrounding a scary or painful occurrence. As parents, we sometimes avoid talking about upsetting experiences, thinking that doing so will reinforce our child's pain or make things worse, but storytelling is helpful in making sense of the event and in helping the child move to a place where they feel better about the situation. For younger children or a child who is not ready to share, you may choose to begin the story and ask them to fill in the details.
- Give space and time: If your child communicates that they are not interested in discussing their anxious thoughts, give them space and talk later. For a healthy dialogue to occur, it is important for both you and your child to be in a regulated state of mind.
- Use art: Another approach is to encourage your child to draw a picture or write about their feelings and fears. You may also choose to engage your child in role-playing, using favorite toys or dolls to re-create an experience.
- Teach your child to be a detective: As your child begins to feel comfortable naming his fears, teach him how to further examine them. Ask your child to identify the thought that is creating anxiety. Teach them the reflective tool of asking, “Is that thought true? Do I have any evidence that it is true?” Together, think about other possible alternatives to the situation that may be causing anxiety. Additionally, you can have them look at the likelihood that such a situation would occur.
- Use a worry box: If your child has trouble letting go of their worry, have them write down their worries and then put it in a worry box. Let them know that their worries will always be there if they want to come back to it, but that they can put them down for a while to focus on other things.
- Focus on breathing techniques: Breathing techniques are helpful in managing anxiety and worry as they can help your child transition out of their head and into their body. Try bumblebee breathing or box breathing. For box breathing, your child will breathe in for four breaths, hold for four breaths and then exhale for four breaths. Another breathing strategy is five finger breathing. In this type of breathing, ask your child to hold one hand out, stretching their fingers like a star. Pretend the pointer finger of the other hand is a pencil that will outline their fingers. Start at the bottom of the thumb side and ask them to inhale as they trace up the finger, pause at the top, and then exhale as they trace down the finger. Continue the breathing practice until all five fingers have been traced.
- Try relaxation strategies: Teach your child the art of progressive muscle relaxation. Allow your child to go through all parts of their body, mindfully tensing and relaxing the muscles to help them understand the difference between a tense and relaxed body. Additionally, a relaxation place exercise can help your child visualize a peaceful place that they can come back to in their mind to help them stay calm and grounded.
Creating a list of tools helped me determine my approach to helping my son. The next day, while my son was playing, I said to him, “I would like to talk about yesterday when you asked me if you had the coronavirus. Would now be a good time to talk?”
“You feel scared that you have the coronavirus?”
He nodded again, only this time his eyes wider and the tears forming. I remembered about connecting the left and right sides of the brain. So I gently began the narrative for him. “You haven’t been feeling very well the past few days, with a cough and fever, huh? And the kids at school were talking about the virus and how some people near where we live may have it.”
I could see my son’s tears as his right brain did its job. “I don’t want to get sick and die, mom!”
He fell into my arms. “You feel like the coronavirus could kill you?” I asked.
He nodded his head.
“That does feel scary,” I continued. “What can we do to help us get more information about the virus?”
“We could look at the news articles,” he offered.
And so our journey to naming and taming his fear began … we searched, we read, we talked, and by bedtime my son felt at ease, even though he still had a cold.
We can help our children tell their life stories, both the minor scrapes and bruises as well as the bigger traumas and fears. We can do this when it comes to the coronavirus and other big scary things. In doing so, we help our children grow their brains and build life-long regulation skills. Thanks to these tools, my son’s fear brought connection. We both learned something that day - not only did we gain tips for naming and taming our fears, but we learned that together we can overcome mountains.
*** Story inspired by a Generation Mindful member's story. Thank you Tyese Johnson for sharing with us.
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