Last year, while our children were learning to navigate the world around them, that world suddenly changed. What used to seem normal is now strange. What used to excite them may now seems terrifying. Many children who never experienced anxiety prior to the COVID-19 pandemic are now showing signs of excessive worry and even panic.
Anxiety is, simply, fear and worry over the unknown or what is beyond our control. And even a little over a year into the pandemic, there is still a lot seemingly beyond our control, especially for our children.
In small amounts, anxiety is helpful for children and adults, causing the production of stress hormones to help us cope with threatening situations. However, in large amounts, it can cause us to go into survival mode. Then, our brains are triggered by the perceived threat and prepare us to respond by either fighting it, running away from it or freezing in place when unable to decide what to do.
In this fight, flight or freeze mode, our brains switch from high-functioning thinking to simple reaction. This is our “cave man” brain, which controls our basic needs to survive. When using this part of our brain, we’re unable to think past or plan anything beyond how to respond in order to survive the perceived threat.
Because of their lack of experience and knowledge, children have greater difficulty responding to the perceived threat and returning to higher-functioning thinking. They also don’t have the words or ability to express what’s wrong when in survival mode — and thus will need more support calming down. It’s important for parents to know the signs of this extreme anxiety and how to best help them.
Fight in children may not target the threat they’re feeling, so it’s important to watch for any unusual reactions, including acting out in anger or silliness, defiance and arguing, physical aggression, such as throwing items or fighting, and tantrums or hyperactivity.
Flight for children may include becoming emotionally withdrawn or daydreaming, avoiding or hiding from places or people, becoming fidgety or restless, or having low motivation to accomplish everyday tasks or schoolwork.
Freeze in children can mean shutting down, refusing to answer you or giving you a blank stare, clinging or crying or simply refusing to move physically.
So, how can you best help your child break this fight, flight or freeze cycle at this difficult time?
The best advice is to talk to them. Have regular conversations about the emotions they’re feeling and discuss how their current experiences are causing those feelings. But make sure not to overdo it, especially when they’re feeling anxious; avoid talking too much about or rationalizing the issue. Reassure them, but don’t try to solve the problem for them.
Don’t allow them to avoid situations that make them feel anxious. This may seem to help in the moment, but it may actually make the anxiety worse. Remember it’s healthy for your child to experience different emotions, even worry and anxiety. And make sure you’re patient with them. Children learn by your example and will follow your lead.
In addition, you can:
• Create clear and concise expectations.
• Give them choices, building their confidence and empowering them to solve the situation on their own.
• Revisit the situation after they no longer feel anxious, focusing on how they were able to solve the situation on their own.
If you feel your child is experiencing extreme signs of anxiety or if you feel you need help in helping them cope, you can seek professional assistance for more personalized care.
• Children’s health is a continuing series. Sabrina Rodriguez is a counselor specialized in children and families at the Amita Health Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights.