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How to help children manage virus anxiety

Photo: Helping children manage virus anxiety
Parents and mental health practitioners say children and teenagers may experience anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic and associated lifestyle changes.

A Queensland mum says her heart is breaking watching her special needs children try to deal with the impact of the coronavirus.

Rebecca says her nine-year-old son has become withdrawn and cries when he goes to sleep.

"I have had to sleep with him on some nights because he thinks everything has been taken away, and that I will be taken away too," she told AAP.

At school the children had aides to support their teachers, but Rebecca now faces the challenge of helping them learn at home.

"I don't know how to teach my special needs kids," she says.

Rebecca's seven-year-old has meltdowns in the supermarket, where he can't understand social distancing, and walking past a park, where he is banned from using play equipment.
NSW mum Rachael says her eight-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, showers several times a day, taking hand-washing instructions to the extreme as he fears contracting COVID-19.

He used to cope with crowds, but doesn't like being near other people now because he's scared they have coronavirus.

Often it takes children - especially those with special needs - weeks to get accustomed to change, but that isn't possible during the COVID-19 crisis.

The psychological effects of the pandemic are evident to Kids Helpline service provider yourtown which has shown a 29 per cent increase in contacts in the past week compared to the same period last year.

Chief executive Tracy Adams says the helpline offers advice and support to concerned and anxious kids at a time when society is literally shutting down around them.

"At a time when as a society we are focusing on social distancing, we must also work hard to maintain and enhance connectedness," Ms Adams said.

University of Southern Queensland child psychologist Professor Sonja March says we'll see a lot of anxiety among children and teenagers as the pandemic continues to spread.

Anxious behaviour can include asking questions to seek reassurance, being clingy, having difficulty sleeping, feeling nauseated and withdrawing.

"They may worry about many different things related to the virus - whether they or their family members will get sick, whether schools will close, whether they will be asked to stay away from loved ones and friends, whether they will be safe, or whether the virus will ever end," Professor March said.

If the behaviour stops the kids from relaxing or causes distress, parents need to get on top of it, she told AAP.

Professor March encourages parents to lead by example: Stay calm, access information from reputable sources and don't get caught up in sensational coronavirus reports.

"Remind your children that for most people this is a mild illness," she says.

To help children avoid getting carried away by their fears for the future, Professor March said parents can think about what can be done today to help manage the situation.

If a grandparent is in hospital or self-isolation, children can send messages of love, for example.

"As parents, we should not put too much pressure on ourselves to make everything perfect," she says.

"We need to just do our best and give ourselves a break."

Single parents and those with children who have special needs may struggle more than others if they cannot get respite or support.

But Professor March says online resources and telehealth services are available so parents can continue to talk to service providers like psychologists and social workers from home.

Parents also may be anxious about their children's education, but schools are working hard to put systems in place to help parents and children if they cannot open for Term 2.

While a bit of structure during the day at home, and a mix of online learning and activities together are good goals, be flexible about any plans, Professor March said.

RESOURCES
  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
  • www.brave-online.com - an online self-help program for parents and children

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