COVID-19: Managing Child Anxiety

By Liz Driscoll Jorgensen, CADC and Mary Murphy, PhD., with Eve Kessler, Esq.


It’s not unusual for children with LD and ADHD also to experience high levels of anxiety during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic • But you can help them manage their worries by finding the strategies that work best for them

For some kids with ADHD and LD, the added burden of high anxiety related to COVID-19 can make getting through the day seem like an overwhelming struggle. Below are strategies to help your kids overcome the debilitating emotions associated with fear and worry.

Regulate; Relate; Reason. When your child’s brain is hijacked by anxiety and emotion and he can’t think rationally, intervene using this 3-step sequence:

  • Help calm his fight/flight/freeze responses (regulate).
  •  Connect by being attuned and sensitive to what he’s feeling (relate).
  • Help him to reflect, learn, remember, articulate, and become self-assured (reason).

Normalize anxiety and model calm behaviors. Although you are likely to be experiencing heightened stress as well, aim to project calmness and control. Be a composed, reassuring, and confident presence for your child: “Anxiety is part of life. We all deal with our anxiety in different ways. I can see you’re upset; what can we do?”

Recognize and praise small accomplishments. Don’t wait for your child to complete his online corona school assignments perfectly before praising him. For kids who struggle with anxiety in addition to their other learning disorders, things are harder and success takes longer. Commend effort and offer encouragement along the way. Be flexible and modify expectations during this stressful period.

Anticipate worries. Kids—especially those with special needs— often struggle with changes in routines. To the degree possible, explain changes before they happen: “I’m going to the store soon, but I’m taking all the precautions necessary to stay safe and healthy.” “Let’s go for a family bike ride. Being outside is safe and healthy if we follow the rules to keep our distance from others.”

Maintain predictable routines such as regular meal times and bedtimes with evening ‘wind-down’ time and bedtime rituals. Make a safe, calm plan for regularly scheduled homework time and give helpful and caring feedback.

Use age-appropriate language and explanations. Kids under 10 are generally concrete (as opposed to abstract) thinkers and may become easily anxious when they don’t understand something. Concrete thinking can lead to anxiety when kids jump to conclusions about things they hear. For example, if families constantly talk about the pandemic, younger children may assume a terrible disease can come at any time, and their family will get it. Limit your child’s exposure to COVID-related media reports. When children do hear reports, reassure them that you are taking precautions to make sure no one in your family gets sick.

Provide vocabulary for a range of emotions. It is important for kids to understand their spectrum of emotions and to be able to explain their feelings. If they don’t have a way to express themselves, they will become even more anxious and act out. Provide your child with the language of emotional regulation in a way that can be fun and understandable. For example, “zones of emotional vocabulary” may be based on colors: “I’m feeling blue” can indicate feeling sad, sick, tired or bored; “green” can refer to feeling happy, calm, focused and ready to learn; “yellow” can mean they are frustrated, worried, excited, or silly/wiggly; and “I see you’re in the red zone right now” can signify that they are angry, scared, elated, or on the verge of yelling or hitting.

Encourage mindfulness from an early age. It’s never too soon to teach kids how to self-regulate. Whether it is by counting breaths or frog jumps, there are numerous apps for children and adolescents that teach skills of self-control, problem-solving, planning, and task persistence, in addition to guided meditation, visualization, and how to identify and process emotions.

Promote adequate sleep, healthy eating, and daily exercise. Sleep deprivation worsens all mental-health conditions. Maintain good sleep hygiene and a calming positive sleep routine. Don’t let sleep or mealtimes turn into power struggles because of anxiety. Instead of asking your child an open-ended and potentially anxiety-provoking question, such as, “What do you want for dinner?” offer two healthy choices.

This article is based on Understanding & Addressing Anxiety in Your Child: Methods That Really Work, by Liz Driscoll Jorgensen, CADC and Mary Murphy, PhD. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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