Sound and uplifting advice for managing anxiety in children of all ages.
Lauren Brown, an educational psychologist, shares some practical advice to parents on how to support their children during lockdown.
I am an educational psychologist and work with children from 3 years up to early adolescence. I love working with parents and supporting them in fostering close relationships with their children. The favourite aunt to two of the cutest boys ever, I spend my free time baking and then tasting the products.
Life can be stressful. Who would have thought that in the space of a few months we would go from celebrating a new decade to full lockdown? Anxiety is on the rise, especially in our children. A recent umbrella review of peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic of anxiety found substantial evidence to argue that quarantine and isolation has a negative impact on mental health in a variety of contexts (Hossain et al., 2020). An increase in anxiety levels in children is certainly something I have witnessed first-hand as an educational psychologist. Even more common (and completely understandable) is the temptation I see in parents to wrap their children in bubble wrap to shield them from the world. Exposing one’s child to difficult situations, or watching him/her learn tough lessons through pain or stress, including lockdown, can feel completely counterintuitive for parents. Yet experts agree that parents need to prepare their children for the certainty of stresses in the everyday world. The question many parents ask me is – how exactly does one do this without breaking one’s child emotionally and psychologically? You may be asking this very question yourself. The next few points are a few tried and trusted methods I suggest to parents with whom I work.
Firstly, parents need to be focused on building their child’s self-efficacy – a concept that describes a child’s view of his/her own ability to achieve a goal. It is a powerful indicator of school success, and thus coping with academic work during the lockdown. Carol Dweck, author of Mind-set: The New Psychology of Success (2006), states that implicit or inner views of ability have a significant impact on a child. Children who have a fixed mind-set believe that success is based on innate ability. Results or outcomes are normally seen as a measure of this innate ability. The problem with the fixed mind-set is that it is a breeding ground for distorted assumptions. For example, if I achieve a below average result on a test then I could mistakenly deduce that my innate ability is below average. It is mistaken because there are a number of external variables that influence test scores, including whether or not I ate breakfast that morning. In contrast to this mind-set, having a growth mind-set views success as something based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness. Under this perspective, what becomes far more important than the actual test score are the child’s inner qualities, over which he/she has more control in the first place.
Changing how one affirms one’s child can be a very powerful way of formulating a growth mind-set. It all comes down to the difference between encouraging a child and praising a child. Gunderson et al. (2013, p.1526) explain:
Encouraging a child’s effort helps him to adopt incremental motivational frameworks: he believes ability is malleable, attributes success to hard work, enjoys challenges, and generates strategies for improvement. In contrast, praising a child’s inherent abilities (to which the outcome is attributed) helps him to adopt a fixed-ability framework.
Praising focuses on outcome and innate ability: “Wow, you got an A for your test!” Encouraging involves affirming a child’s character and personal decisions: “Wow, I’m so proud of how hard you chose to prepare for this test!” It may seem like a simple shift to make, but it is not as easy as it seems. Society, in general, seems to focus more on praise, to which we, as adults have become accustomed. Encouraging a child requires an awareness of the inner qualities (such as determination, enthusiasm, persistence, and reliability) that contribute towards success. Making this a focus, especially while you homeschool your child during lockdown, can go a long way to mitigate anxiety.
Another area of focus when it comes to supporting children with anxiety is quality of sleep. Poor quality sleep is a significant and growing public health issue among children worldwide. Researchers have found that when children are on holiday they are physically less active, and have considerably more screen time, causing irregular sleep patterns (Brazendale et al., 2017). This appears to be worse when children are confined to their homes without activities outdoors and interaction with friends during times of quarantine (Wang, 2020). Poor sleep in children has been associated with a number of adverse outcomes, including mood instability and anxiety, impairments in attention and memory, and behavioural consequences such as poor impulse control. Sleep can be a huge source of conflict for parents and children. I have spoken to many parents who cannot understand why their children are so averse to sleeping. Who doesn’t enjoy a snuggly afternoon nap? In my opinion, fear of missing out is a major source of not wanting to sleep. Our children simply have too much to experience in this world and sleeping interferes with that. However, NOT sleeping interferes with that too!
One significant way to improve sleep quality in our children is to make use of the 90-minute rule (Brazendale et al., 2017). Each night, the brain moves through several sleep cycles. At the start of each cycle, we enter light sleep, then move into deep sleep, then dream, and then move back into light sleep. These sleep cycles take about 90 minutes each, and we feel most refreshed when we wake at the end of a cycle, because then the brain is closest to normal waking state (Brazendale et al., 2017). To increase the chances of this, decide what time you want your child to wake up, and then count backwards in 90-minute blocks to decide on the bedtime. Also ensure, especially during lockdown, that your child wakes up at the same time each day, even on weekends. Using the 90-minute rule could result in your child waking up alert, refreshed instead of bleary-eyed, and hopefully not grumbling about having to go to school, even if school is at the dining room table.
Another relatively simple way to improve sleep quality as soon as tonight is to send the kids to bed an hour earlier – that is if that does not produce a grumpy, impossibly resistant child, of course. A 2003 study (Sadeh et al., 2003) assessed the effects of modest sleep restriction and extension on Grade 4 and 5 children’s neurobehavioral functioning. The findings suggest that even moderate changes in sleep duration have detectable and significant effects on children’s functioning. Increasing the amount of sleep by just one hour had a significant impact on the participants’ performances in neuropsychological tests, particularly concerning short-term memory and concentration – good news for parents who, by shifting bedtime just one hour earlier, could substantially improve their child’s ability to learn.
A third way that parents can ensure their child’s anxiety levels are under control is to screen what their children are exposed to online. The internet has become a lifesaver during this time, with many schools using a number of platforms to ensure teaching continues. However, the internet can also be a dangerous, anxiety-inducing place for children. Statistics are frightening. Around one in ten children (aged 8 to 11) who use the internet say that they encountered something online that they found worrying or nasty (Ofcom, 2016). 64% of children aged 13 to 17 have seen posts or videos online that are offensive to a particular targeted group or involve hate speech (UK Safer Internet Centre, 2017). In my practice, I have spent a considerable amount of time counselling children who have seen disturbing images online that have raised their anxiety levels to a degree that impacts on their functioning.
The GOOD news is that parents can do much to shield their children from this online world. The following tips might assist you in protecting your children, both during a lockdown and in general.
- Have a set of family rules for internet and social media usage, and enforce them. Decide on them together, with your child, and ensure each family member signs the document.
- Keep the computer in a common area where you can watch and monitor its use, not in individual bedrooms.
- Bookmark your child’s favourite sites for easy access. This prevents children accidentally stumbling upon inappropriate sites.
- Use filtering apps or programmes such as K9, Covenant Eyes and NetNanny.
If you have an anxious child, know that you are not alone. As I mentioned, in my practice I chat to parents almost daily whose children are battling with issues related to anxiety. While the issue may seem at times insurmountable, there are a number of small changes parents can try, only some of which are described above.
Brazendale, K., Beets, M. W., Weaver, R. G., Pate, R. R., Turner-McGrievy, G. M., Kaczynski, A. T. & von Hippel, P. T. (2017). Understanding differences between summer vs. school obesogenic behaviors of children: the structured days hypothesis. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1), 100.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..
Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., Dweck, C., Goldin-Meadow. & Levine, S.C. (2013). Parent praise to 1-3-year-olds predicts children’s motivation framework 5 years later. Journal of Child Development. 84(5): 1526-1541.
Hossain, M. M., Sultana, A., & Purohit, N. (2020). Mental health outcomes of quarantine and isolation for infection prevention: A systematic umbrella review of the global evidence. Available at SSRN 3561265.
Ofcom. (2016). Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report. Retrieved from www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/93976/Children-Parents-Media-Use-Attitudes-Report-2016.pdf.
Sadeh, A., Gruber, R. & Raviv, A. (2003). The Effects of Sleep Restriction and Extension on School-Age Children: What a Difference an Hour Makes. Child Development, 74 (2), 444–455.
UK Safer Internet Centre. (2017). Power of image: A report into the influence of images and videos in young people’s digital lives. Retrieved from www.saferinternet.org.uk/safer-internet-day/2017/power-of-image-report
Wang, G., Zhang, Y., Zhao, J., Zhang, J., & Jiang, F. (2020). Mitigate the effects of home confinement on children during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Lancet, 395 (10228), 945-947.