Paul Gilligan: How to address children's fears about Covid-19

There is little doubt that we are all completely psychologically and emotionally consumed by concerns about the Covid-19 virus, writes Paul Gilligan

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

It is likely that the greatest emotional impact is on children and teenagers. Many of them will not have experienced anything like this before, and most will relate to the fact that a school was closed as one of the first cases of the virus in Ireland concerned a young person. 

While part of growing up involves coming to terms with uncertainty around health and mortality, this outbreak and the massive media focus on it presents a challenging learning process for many of our young people.

Finding understanding, meaning and emotional resilience in such circumstances is particularly difficult, and parents, teachers and carers have a key role to play. Getting accurate and useful insight into the risks and likely impact is demanding enough, and our concerns may initially be for ourselves or for older or sicker relatives. This can distract us from being there to help our children discern and cope with what is happening.

Nonetheless, it is essential that we make ourselves emotionally available to our young people. Now is an important time to give them space to talk about the ongoing events, and help them to figure out their own understanding of what is happening and why.

Supporting them to resolve their feelings of anxiety and fear, while not getting emotionally stuck, is the real challenge for the weeks ahead. Underpinning this process are the essential principles of helping children and teenagers to stay emotionally healthy:

  • Supporting them to feel good about themselves
  • Guiding them to be able to see happiness
  • Letting them know they are loved
  • Ensuring they feel safe and secure

Allowing our children to talk about what is happening and how they feel, no matter how upsetting we find this, is the first key step in providing them with the appropriate support.

This will require us to take the lead from our children, discussing what they want and are ready to talk about, while, at other times, stepping back. We need to be sure we don’t force them to talk if they don’’t want to and remember they may express their feelings in other ways.

Discussing our own feelings in an open, honest way, while trying to balance our emotions, will help. It is critical that, rather than imposing our own interpretation of events, we facilitate our children to reason things out for themselves.

Enabling young people to find balance will also be crucial. Sometimes they will feel guilty about wanting to just get on with their lives and focusing on what is important to them: seeing friends, sitting exams, doing things they enjoy. Giving them permission to do this, while ensuring they are safe and follow the Department of Health guidelines, is important.

The HSE's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan
The HSE's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan

We will need to manage our own anxiety for their welfare as part of this.

Social media is saturated by news and developments around the coronavirus, and young people are being spared nothing. Much of the information is inaccurate and speculative.

Any attempts to protect them from this exposure will most likely be unsuccessful, and so it will be important to know what is out there and to try and direct them to the most balanced, reliable coverage.

Uncertainty is another dominant theme underlying this situation and, though we might be tempted to try and provide certainty, we can’t. What we can do is provide reassuring facts, and help young people cope with the emotional discomfort that ambiguity and unpredictability bring.

The spread and management of the virus undoubtedly raise questions of ethical and social responsibility. Reaching personal understandings on these issues not only helps young people to emotionally resolve them, but is also an important aspect of developing as a person.

Our role in this process is to support and guide our children, while avoiding imposing our own beliefs on them.

Young people preparing for exams and major sporting or life events will most likely be most concerned with the impact the virus might have on these. We need to accept that these are the priorities for our children, and that hearing and supporting them to resolve these worries is our most valuable role.

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

Naturally, we will become more protective of our children and teenagers. Our existing concerns for their health and wellbeing are being exacerbated. We need to take stock and balance these worries with the importance of allowing children to be children and teenagers to be teenagers.

Trusting in the health authorities and following the guidelines they issue, while taking a balanced approach to managing psychological impacts, is the best way to protect young people’s emotional wellbeing.

For the young people and parents directly affected by this virus to date, we must provide all of our support. Sensationalising or speculating on what is happening should be avoided. It is vital that we trust that these people and the services dealing with them are serving us all as best they can.

Providing young people with the appropriate emotional support throughout this period will not only best serve them now, but will enable them to develop the resilience to cope with future similar events.

- Paul Gilligan is a clinical psychologist and CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services and author of Raising Emotionally Healthy Children

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