Part 3: Worrying About COVID
Dr. Corinne Masur
What effect does the constant worry about illness and safety have on children?
There is no doubt that the worry about COVID and how to stay safe from contracting it is affecting all of us – including our children.
Kids of all ages pick up on their parent’s anxiety. When we are worried, our children are like sponges – they know we are worried and they may get worried too.
And, of course, we are all worried about getting sick, about infecting others, about how best to protect ourselves, etc. We are reading the latest information and watching the news.
And regardless of what we do or do not tell our children directly, by age two to three they know about some of the things we are worried about. They will have overheard our conversations, they will have heard some news from the television or radio, and for older children, they will have learned things from their friends about what is going on.
Children of all ages will be worried about what is safe and what is not – and at the same time they may be unhappy or downright resistant to wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing.
After quarantining at home, they may want to go out to their favorite places – but at the same time be worried about going out and going to places they haven’t been for a long while. Even older kids and teens may feel this way – although they may not admit it.
Children of all ages may be worried about germs and about contagion, they may be confused about how this disease gets communicated and how it does not.
So, what effect does all the worry have on kids? And what effect does it have on them to live in a world so different from what they were used to?
Well, I have a point of view that may be different from much of what you have read. From my training as a child psychologist and a child psychoanalyst, this is how I see it:
For the most part, children (from 0 – 9 or so) live mostly in the present moment. That is why, when older relatives ask, “How was school today?” they often don’t have an answer. They are usually thinking about what is happening right now. For example, “There are cookies on the table, when can I eat one?” or “Why does grandpa have strange ear hairs?” NOT about school – that was HOURS ago.
So, in this changed world, young children often are just taking in what is happening in the moment. “OH? We have to wear masks? Why?” With a good explanation, they may rebel or they may move forward but they are not thinking as much about how weird this new world is as you are.
And for older children and teenagers, well, they will have lots of questions. They will want to know how long this is going to last and whether life will ever go back to the way it was; they will worry about what effect not seeing friends and not doing school in the regular way will have on the friendships and on their futures. They will chafe at the restrictions and be irritable and frustrated and angry. They will worry about what happens if they DO get COVID, or if you do.
And the problem is, that we as parents, are also worrying about the very same things.
But the most important thing in this whole chaotic nightmare of a year is this: if you are able to manage your worries as a parent and if you can help your child to talk about his or her worries and if you are able to soothe your child when he or she is scared or overwhelmed or angry or feeling hopeless about the future, your child will be OK.
That is not to say that this is easy. In this pandemic, in this political climate, there is a lot for us as parents to worry about. Containing our own anxiety is not simple. With the 24-hour news cycle it is common to feel anxious and oversaturated with bad news.
But it is important for us as parents figure out how to manage our anxiety so we DON’T pass it all on to our children. For some, this means limiting news intake. For others it means having frequent talks with a partner or friend about all the frightening things going on. For others a daily run or yoga session is mandatory. Whatever you need to do to tamp down your own anxiety, this will be helpful for you in being the best parent you can be.
And this is also not to say that if we can manage our own anxiety, this pandemic experience will not affect our children. It will. But the truth is that we do not know yet exactly how it will. Your child is living through an historic and unprecedented event. There will be stories to tell for years to come. But as to how much damage is being inflicted on children by this experience? I suspect less than we think.
In part 1 of this series I spoke about the protective effect that having parents present and emotionally available has on children even during the worst that life has to offer. This is an enduring truth. When children have parents available to them who are able to be reasonable and rational about the risks and the danger (at least most of the time) and to talk about these things openly, generally children will be OK. This does not mean that you cannot be irritable, that you cannot have a lapse in patience, that you cannot shut your door and need a break on a regular basis – all those things are normal – it just means that if you can be there for your children when it really counts – when they are frightened or need to talk – you are providing a vital and protective function that is more powerful even than COVID.