- Researchers say children can tell when parents are under stress, even if parents try to hide their anxiety.
- Experts say that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important for parents to acknowledge their stress to their children in an age-appropriate manner.
- They add that parents should practice self-care so they’re able to take care of their children’s emotional needs.
- They also suggest activities such as family dance or drawing parties as ways to help ease children’s stress.
Is it possible to shield your children from pandemic anxiety by masking your own feelings?
According to a new study, the answer is no.
What’s more, parents who are anxious can actually transmit these emotions to their kids.
Researchers from Washington State University analyzed 107 parents and their children.
They started by getting a baseline emotional reading from both and then studying their responses after parents had performed a stressful activity.
In their study, published in the Journal of Human Psychology, researchers reported that suppressing parental stress wasn’t an effective strategy in mitigating kids’ stress levels.
While the research doesn’t relate directly to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, experts say its lessons are directly applicable to current events.
“The stress task in our study was pretty mild and short-lived, while for many families the stress of COVID-19 and social isolation is much more intense and chronic,” Sara Waters, PhD, lead study author and an assistant professor in Washington State’s Department of Human Development, told Healthline.
“These are different, but it’s likely that if we’re feeling stressed out about something, including the pandemic, then our children are experiencing some stress about it, too,” Waters said. “Even very young children are more sensitive to our emotional states than we’d like to think.”
“Children pick up on our emotional state whether we acknowledge it or not, so when we say everything is fine even though it’s not, it can be confusing for children and it tells them that we should avoid feeling our negative emotions,” Waters said. “This does not mean that we should share all the details of our upset with our children or that we should take our stress out on them.”
So where can parents draw the line between shielding their kids from upsetting news and letting them know what’s going on?
Some of it comes down to a child’s age. Naturally, a teenager is going to be more aware of current events than a toddler, for example.
It comes down to emotional honesty in both parent and child.
Waters says this starts with parents finding ways to manage their own stress effectively, which starts with acknowledging it to their kids.
“It’s OK to not be OK right now,” she said.
From there, parents can open a dialogue with their children, asking them what their friends are talking about, what they’re worried about, and listen carefully.
“Be honest with them about the situation without sharing more information than is needed,” Waters said. “Acknowledge to them that you are stressed and then show them what you do to help yourself feel calmer and better. This makes you a role model of emotional resilience for your children.”
By now it’s well understood that COVID-19 is highly contagious.
However, even in a safely quarantined family, stress and fear can also be contagious.
“Emotional contagion is a real deal,” explained Melissa Wesner, licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of LifeSpring Counseling Services. “It’s important for parents to realize that children, and humans in general, are perceptive and know when something is off.”
To help their children cope, parents also need to find ways to personally cope.
Wesner told Healthline that prioritizing self-care can be helpful. This includes journal writing, meditation, self-check-ins, and discussions with friends and family.
When it comes to helping children manage stress levels, Wesner suggests creating or maintaining a routine. Continuing regular family rituals such as dinner and bedtime can establish continuity.
For kids who are having trouble expressing themselves verbally, activities like playtime, drawing, and sharing can help them express their feelings.
With children and other family members stuck at home, Wesner says this creates an opportunity for family connection, such as a dance party in the living room or movie night.
Kids can also be encouraged to connect with their friends or extended family members over the phone or via video chat.
“Parents who are able to recognize and address their own stress and anxiety will be able to provide a calmer environment for their children,” Wesner said.
Parental strategies are likely to differ depending on the age of their children.
Younger children are more likely to see the pandemic as the vague reason school has been disrupted while older kids will be more plugged into the realities of COVID-19.
Laurie Gelb, a board certified patient advocate, told Healthline that depending on the age of your kids, discussing current events may entail brutal honesty.
“Share age-appropriate personal, social, and economic impact information with children,” Gelb said. “If you have lost a job, have seen reduced income, or have had to change housing for any reason, you can acknowledge this as well while stating with the truth that many others are worse off.”
“The ‘courage of conviction’ is very important for kids… that the world is not going away, but we are engaging with it more carefully for a while,” she said.
Gelb points out that parents of older children will need to not just check in with their kids periodically but also dispel misinformation that their kids may have picked up online.
This misinformation and negativity can cause anxiety — and even in the midst of a global pandemic, there’s a place for optimism.
“Address these myths directly: We’re not all going to die of COVID-19, and the virus isn’t an international conspiracy,” said Gelb. “Most important for your kids and you is to emphasize what’s known, how so many people are stepping up to help each other, from health professionals to volunteers, and that we’re learning more every day that will help us stay safe.”