As featured in Charlotte Agenda, our three counselors share advice on how to help our kids cope with anxiety, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Samantha Alexander, Charlotte Agenda
Kids are dealing with anxiety – here’s how three Charlotte school counselors are helping them cope
While you might think the burden of anxiety is reserved for adulthood, it’s something that even kindergarteners are facing. And now more than ever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some worries and fear are normal parts of a child’s development. “For example, toddlers are often very distressed about being away from their parents, even if they are safe and cared for.”
It’s when children show persistent or extreme forms of worry that there can be an issue. It can show up as separation anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, or general anxiety. And it can hinder a child’s development as they are trying to learn and grow.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing students into remote learning environments away from their friends and normal routines, it’s natural for anxiety levels to be higher.
JG Bailey, Janani Buford, and Samantha Bosco all work in Charlotte Country Day School’s counseling department. Bosco works with high school students, Buford works with middle school students, and Bailey works with elementary-age students. They also serve on the steering committee of the Student Wellness Committee, which looks to continuously improve the school’s abilities to best balance rigor and wellness, and give students the tools they need to lead and thrive as they grow into healthy adults.
I talked with the three of them to learn more about anxiety in kids, and how they are helping them cope, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has the transition to remote learning been for the students at Country Day amidst the coronavirus outbreak?
Bosco: I work with high school students and it has been really tough. This is a loss for everyone yet our community is resilient, especially the students. There are still many questions that have yet to be answered about Spring and end of year events and our students recognize that we are all in this together. While it has been difficult being away from their friends, they are finding ways to connect. Just over the weekend, some juniors and seniors dressed up in their prom attire, took pictures and had Zoom calls. Pretty creative!
Buford: Yeah I think all of the kids are experiencing some form of grief right now. Just grieving a sense of normalcy.
Bailey: Agreed. And I think for the little ones it’s been a little tougher academically just because they’re maybe not as independent or used to the technology as much as the older kids. They really rely on that teacher connection and guidance.
Buford: We’ve been checking in with the kids we normally meet with over video chat and we’re talking to parents and teachers too to stay in the loop with how they are doing. This has been really hard for the teachers because they really miss that teacher-student connection.
How do you think parents should approach conversations with kids who are anxious or have questions about coronavirus?
Buford: First of all, don’t be afraid to talk to them about it. Be honest and be factually reassuring. It’s ok to say you don’t know something too. And I think it’s important for parents to deal with their own anxiety before talking to their kids. It needs to be a calm conversation.
Related: Charlotte Country Day School’s Parent Education Blog has some helpful resources like 13 Helpful Resources for Parents During the Coronavirus, 4 Tips to Prepare for Virtual Parent-Teacher Conferences, How to Talk to Your Children About the Coronavirus, and How to Foster Resilience in Children.
What recommendations do you have for helping kids cope who are overwhelmed or dealing with anxiety while being stuck at home?
Bailey: We have a saying “you have to name it, to tame it.” By “naming a feeling” children express their current feelings. It’s important to stress all feelings (negative and positive) are possible, but it’s what you do with these feelings where change can occur. So, “in taming it” some coping methods could be a grown up acknowledging the identified feeling, talking about the current situation in developmentally appropriate ways, getting exercise, taking brain breaks, a walk outside, and beginning or continuing the practice of mindfulness. There are many apps to help guide and support this type of practice for every age group.
Bosco: I think it’s finding time for whatever forms of self-care you personally need. It looks different for everyone but making sure to carve out those moments of self-care can really help alleviate overall anxiety.
Buford: Maintaining some sort of routine or schedule is important too. Having that structure can be comforting.
Generally speaking, do you think kids are more anxious now than they used to be?
Buford: I think anxiety has always been something kids face in a high academic environment, but kids are feeling more open about naming it and getting more comfortable talking about it.
Bailey: I agree, and we are talking about it more too and trying to be proactive with wellness and prevention.
What are some of the ways you all are being proactive about anxiety at your school?
Bailey: All of our students are taught social and emotional curriculum, which includes teaching things like mindfulness and self-compassion. And they are still being taught that same curriculum through remote learning. We also teach calming down strategies, which include things like breathing or counting exercises, positive self-talk, or just stopping and naming the feeling they are having.
Buford: We also do an annual training with our faculty teaching them how to spot the signs and symptoms of certain things. For instance, we teach them how to spot and handle a child having a panic attack.
Anxiety feels like a sort of complex idea for young children to understand, how do you talk to elementary school kids about it?
Bailey: We have something called an “Emotions Thermometer” in all of our classrooms. It helps them identity and voice how they’re feeling. It goes along with that idea that “you have to name it to tame it.” We also encourage the kids to use it at home with their parents.
We also teach the lower school kids to scale their problems. The scale is ant, to dog, to elephant. It’s a simple scale and it helps give them perspective into what things maybe aren’t as big of a deal and then what things are a big deal and require them to talk to an adult.
What role do parents play and how can they help their child dealing with anxiety?
Buford: Modeling is huge. When you have stress at work, how are you dealing with it? It’s very crucial that parents not bring their own stuff into the mix. Aside from that, we want kids to be able to handle things themselves as much as possible. We encourage parents to start with empathy instead of going right to problem-solving.
Bailey: Role-playing is also a useful tool. For instance, if they have a problem with a friend at school, you can act out the scenario with them and help them deal with it. This sort of exercise allows children to gain ease and awareness, so when the actual situation occurs they feel prepared to react in confident and positive ways.
Buford: I would also say that not over-scheduling your child, making sure they are getting enough sleep, and eating balanced meals are all really important to overall health as well.
What resources do you recommend for parents with kids with anxiety?
Buford: Mental care is such an individual thing but therapists can be a great resource. We have relationships with numerous therapists, and we’ll refer them to parents if we think it’ll be helpful.
Bailey: I think books are a great resource as well. I love The Yes Brain by Daniel J. Siegel M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.; The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey; Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen by Wendy Mogul, Ph.D.; and anything written by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.