by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghJanuary 6, 2022 anxiety in children, Child Anxiety, child counseling, child psychologist, child therapy, children mental health, death, health anxiety, pandemic, parenting, Parenting and Families0 comments
In the last two years there has been a noticeable increase of school age children spending a lot of their time discussing and playing out themes of death. This can be very concerning to parents as they want to shield their children from anything that is scary and death is a heavy concept, even for adults.
With the pandemic, death has been a constant topic on the news, media, and at the dinner table. Children are more observant than adults often realize so even when they seem absorbed in their video games or pretend play, they are internalizing what is being said. The way that children explore and understand the world is different from adults. Children will process unsafe and/or new topics by playing them out with their toys. This allows them to take an unsafe topic into a safe space that they control and understand.
According to the Yale Child Study Center, “Between the ages of 5 and 7 years, children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible and that the person who died will not return” (Child Bereavement UK, 2020, p. 2). This means that there is an entire group of children who are moving into this developmental stage of understanding death for the first time during a global pandemic. Looking at the behaviors from this lens gives an understanding to the increase in anxiety, play themes, and/or conversations around this topic for school age children.
Another important part of this developmental stage is that the child’s imagination and ‘magical thinking’ also needs to be considered and addressed when looking for ways to help children conceptualize death and decreasing the anxiety around this topic. The Yale Child Study Center goes on to say:
Children’s imagination and ‘magical thinking at this age can mean that some children may believe that their thoughts or actions caused the death, and they can feel guilt. Not being given sufficient information in age-appropriate language can lead them to ‘make- up’ and fill in the gaps of this knowledge. Children increasingly become aware that death is an inevitable part of life that happens to all living things. As a result, they become anxious about their own, and other’s, health, and safety.” (p. 2).
To summarize, children are taking on the weight of the world with this pandemic on their tiny shoulders. So it is the job of the adult to take this burden off of them. This is not to say that the adult needs to take the responsibility of a global pandemic either, because that is also an impossible task, but instead to free up the child to engage in their job of being a kid. As much as parents wish they could change the world for their child, what is in their control is making sure the child feels safe.
For example, if a young child was worried that if an acorn fell her entire family would die this would in line with magical thinking due to lack of information. Parents are then able to use this as an opportunity to use age-appropriate language to explain, without invalidating, the child’s fears. The parent is then able to say, “I can see this is something that you are very afraid of. Let’s take a deep breath together to help calm ourselves and talk about it. It’s Mommy’s/Daddy’s/Safe Grownup’s job to keep you safe. It’s your job to be a kid and play. It’s okay to be scared and sometimes scary things happen in the world, but I am here to help you with your big emotions, as well as help keep you safe.”
The world is a scary place, so it is important to create a safe space within the family unit for the child to express how they are feeling, as well as have their needs met through validation and allowing them to hear that they are safe to let the parent be in control.
Another way of reassuring children of the parent’s role of protector and sole adult is through play. Similar language can be used when the child is playing out these fears of the pandemic and death. Children will show you exactly what they are thinking and worrying about through play, even when they do not have the words to have a conversation around this. The parent can then utilize whatever scene the child is playing out to have characters deliver these important messages of safety.
It can be difficult for parents to take on this task, especially if they have their own fears of death and the pandemic. There are many resources available for guidance, such as the Association for Play Therapy’s Parent’s Corner. If you would like to work with a professional there are always many options for the family, such as parent consultation, individual play therapy, and dyadic play therapy with a play therapist. The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh has licensed professionals who are here to help!
Child Bereavement UK. (2020). Children’s understanding of death at different ages. Yale Child Study Center. Retrieved from www.medicine.yale.edu/childstudyLearn More
by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghOctober 1, 2019 anxiety in children, child counseling, child psychologist0 comments
5 Ways to Soothe Anxiety in your Child
Whether your child is anxious or even has a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, you have probably tried everything that you can think of to help them manage their emotions. Your daughter stays up all night worrying about show and tell tomorrow in school, she cries and repeats, ‘I know I am going to mess up, I will say something stupid and everyone will laugh at me!” Of course, you have seen this scenario happen before with your very concerned little one, and like most parents you want your child to see that there is nothing to fear, that they should simply stop thinking about it and go to sleep. Minimizing away worry, is the layman’s most common way of responding to other’s anxieties, we repeat things such as, ‘there is nothing to worry about,’ And at other times ‘try not to think about it.’ Experts have a different approach to managing and responding to anxiety that takes into account scientifically tested psychological methods to become well and relaxed. Below we have compiled a list of the best ways to manage your child’s anxiety according to a team of expert child therapists. These tips are most effective for children over the age of 6.
Start by labeling the emotion that your child is feeling. If we stick with the above example we might say, ‘You are really anxious about your show and tell tomorrow.’ Healthy emotional management always starts by identifying the feelings that are being exhibited instead of masking or shooing away what is being said.
Ask for more information, delve into the feeling with your child. Ask some questions like, ‘what is the scariest part about this for you?’ ‘what do you think could go wrong?’ ‘what do you feel in your body when you think about it?’ This is yet another way that we groom our children to have healthy emotional hygiene by digging in and practicing awareness of their physical responses and having a more global perspective of what is frightening them the most.
Validate the feeling, help them understand that everyone worries, has fears, and tends to think about things like this sometimes. When we are being honest with ourselves we too will realize that we definitely do have moments where our stress and worry are very high. One of the mechanisms which makes anxiety worse is when we build feeling constellations internally and feel ashamed, guilty, and abnormal for our feelings of concern. By helping our child understand that some worry is normal we can help them build a foundation of positive emotional health.
Reframe Can you help them think about some ways that is can be helpful to worry or be anxious about something that is happening in the future? In cognitive behavioral therapy we can this ‘reframe,’ when we change one maladaptive thought and we replace it with a healthier one. It may take some time to think it through with your child, ask them, ‘how can worrying about your performance help you?’ Brainstorm and imagine how sometimes when we worry, we may really want to do a good job with something, that sometimes we can also work hard to prepare when we are concerned.
Make Space for Worry- It is ok for your child to worry a little bit, as much as any parent wants to help their child we can not take away all of their fears and concerns and it may add more stress to the situation if we try too hard to make their anxious feelings vanish.
Remember to pay attention to your own feelings and responses to your child whenever they express their fears or anxieties to you. We know how overwhelming it can be as a parent who wants to make things right, try to take some breaths and notice any stress that you are feeling before you try to soothe your child. Even just by pairing a reflective moment and a long slow inhale into your body, you will be able to approach the situation with your best efforts toward being constructive and relaxed. Acknowledge to yourself how hard it is in your role as the helper and healer to your stressed our little one. When your child is exhibiting signs of high anxiety, you too may be at risk to burn out and have cargiver fatigue, you may even want to ramp up your own self care and find a mindfulness routine to help you find greater calm and clarity through the very real challenges of parenting an anxious child. Always, if your child is constantly anxious, tearful, sleepless, avoids peers, is very withdrawn, consulting a therapist or counselor who specializes in working with children is a good way to help them get the support that they may need.Learn More