Ask an Expert: Managing Anxiety During a Pandemic

Stephanie Huie

Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP, answers readers' questions on COVID-19 and anxiety

My husband and I are both teachers, and we have two daughters (one in public school and one at Windward). We are finding it very hard to balance our four different schedules, and the risk varies at each of our schools. I think it makes the most sense to take the year off.  
This is a really tough situation, and I will start off by validating how hard this is. One of the hardest parts of the question to me is that there really is no one “right” way to handle it. There are a lot of factors to consider and a lot of moving parts here. I am not sure exactly what is meant by “take the year off,” but I assume it means that one of the adults would take the year off from teaching. If that is the case, this kind of decision is best made when all the facts, the pros and the cons are available and evaluated. Because this situation is likely emotionally charged and stressful, having a conversation with administration of either school and understanding what taking a leave would entail would help you and your husband decide. Also, a conversation with the children’s school including what precautions and safety plans are in place might help you decide. The most important thing to keep in mind that your family’s decision is just that—your family’s decision. There is no “one size fits all” situation during this time. 

How can adults reassure kids that they are safe even during such an uncertain time? 
Parents should continue to provide information to their children and teens and answer questions. Explaining the safety precautions that the family and schools are taking can be reassuring. Talking about exposure and risk in a way that is developmentally appropriate is key. However, it’s also important to avoid making promises about things that a parent cannot control. For example, if your child asks, “Will I get sick?” it’s tempting to say “Of course not. You will be fine.” Instead, it’s best to ask, “What are you the most concerned about?” and answer the child’s immediate concern. You can still let them know that there are things we can’t be certain of but will do the best we can to monitor. 

I am struggling with my ability to trust in others during this pandemic. Based on social media posts that I see of friends going about their daily lives, I find I’m judging if I deem their activities “safe” or “unsafe.” I want to see my friends to boost my emotional and mental health, but I’m anxious not knowing if someone has been proactively protecting themselves from COVID or not. 
Ultimately, you have to decide who to see and where to go based on your own comfort. It’s very hard when you see others, maybe friends or family, doing things that you don’t feel comfortable with. However, that’s ok to have a different assessment of a situation. I myself have had conversations with people in my life and said, “That’s just not something I am comfortable doing right now” or vice versa. We all have to operate with our family’s best interest and safety in the forefront and see others with compassion and in a nonjudgmental way. Seeing friends can help our emotional health, so consider a socially distant visit or a Zoom call. 

What are some specific strategies to help my child cope with anxiety about being back in school?  
It’s always important to lead with validation. That means conveying to your child, “I get it and your worry is important.” If your child is worried about homework because they haven’t had any in a while, start with something like, “I understand you are worried about homework. It’s reasonable to feel worried.” Another strategy is to be clear about your confidence that while the challenge may be hard, you know your child will be able to overcome it. For example, “I know that you are worried about homework. I remember that every year the teachers start out slow and give lots of time to ask questions. I bet they will do that again, and we can talk with your teacher if you need more support.” Finally, it’s important to model non-anxious coping. If your child is worried about getting sick, first validate their concerns. Then convey a sense of confidence that adults are doing what they can to maintain social distancing and safety. You can model that you are calm and that you feel confident in the plan from school. 

What are some ways I can manage my own stress about my child returning to school? 
This is naturally a stressful time for parents. It might sound silly, but reminding yourself, “I am doing the best I can” can help because it’s both true and something we can lose sight of in the midst of stress. Also, seek support from friends, family, and school. Getting support from other adults in your life can help you vent, problem solve, and prevent the stress you are feeling from spreading to your kids. If you have questions about the return to school, reach out to the school. They may be able to clarify something in the plan that would set your mind at ease. Make sure to take time for self-care; small moments during the day for things like hydration, eating, stretching, or taking some time away from the computer screen are really important. 

When is it age-appropriate to discuss facts about the pandemic with my child, especially when many questions are unanswerable now? 
It’s always important to give your child information, even if they don’t directly ask. Finding out what your child already knows will help guide your conversation. For example, saying, “What do you know about COVID (or the pandemic)” is a great place to start. Caregivers often worry that talking about stressful things will somehow create a problem or incite more anxiety. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. Our children look to us to set the tone, and talking about the pandemic is reasonable, given how widespread the impact has been and how many people it has impacted. Kids may be relieved that you are not avoiding hard conversations. It’s also ok not to have an answer to a hard question and it’s completely acceptable to say, "These are the things we know and these are the things we don’t.” If your child asks something that you don’t know but can find out, tell them. Finally, these will be ongoing conversations, likely occurring in small bursts, rather than one long dialogue. 

My child's school is remaining remote for a period of time. What are some ways to engage and grow social-emotional skills with them and their peers? 
There are a lot of ways to help your child stay connected even if school is remote. Plan virtual or socially distanced playdates. Find out what activities or clubs the school is planning and encourage your child to join. Even though some of these activities might not “be the same,” keeping connected is really important. Your child is likely already practicing a lot of important social and emotional skills, like developing resiliency, being flexible in the face of change, and practicing being independent. Look for opportunities to point those accomplishments out to your child.