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Calming Coronavirus anxiety in children (and everyone else) by Angela Kelly

Written by Angela Kelly on 13th March, a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is also Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is whipping up a storm of uncertainty and needless panic-buying across the UK and has raised anxiety amongst many people, especially young people on the spectrum. The Coronavirus panic is a result of what people see in the media - fake or real - and our children see it and hear about it too. If their parents are talking non-stop about it or panic-buying, they're likely to become even more alarmed.

Keeping yourself and your child calm

In my counselling practice, I am hearing these worries from children and their parents about Coronavirus every day. When your child has additional needs that includes anxiety, it's part of our job to keep them grounded and calm. But as it's the top news story/stories every single day, it has become impossible to avoid hearing about Coronavirus, or how many people have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

In our house, I thought we were doing quite well with keeping our autistic son calm about it. Then I heard from his school that he's been having concerns about catching COVID-19, so we might be seeing the swan effect with him. He may seem serene, but is desperately trying to keep afloat below the surface, so we need to let him know he can talk to us about his worries. On reflection, I had noticed a difference in his behaviour, so this may well be why.

You may notice your child being more clingy than usual, or they may display other signs of being anxious that are particular to them. If your child is non-verbal, their concerns may be evident in their behaviour or sleep patterns. If your child has to attend regular hospital appointments, or if they have lower immunity, they may also be harbouring unspoken worries, especially if they see you are already on edge about it.

Therefore, it's important to control your own anxiety - internally and in how you behave. If you feel yourself getting anxious, stop, sit down and regulate your breathing. Remember that at present, the most dangerous thing is not Coronavirus; it's fear. Then, try some deep breaths and maybe some gentle stretching, as you are likely to be holding your body in a tense position.

Educate yourself on the facts about Coronavirus & COVID-19 and only the facts. Then limit yourself to checking once or twice a day or only check the official Government site. Definitely avoid the hype of the popular press.

  • At present, the UK risk level is moderate.

  • Anyone with a "new, continuous" cough or high temperature is now advised to self-isolate for seven days

  • Of 60 million people here, there are currently 600 confirmed cases. That's 0.001% of the population, although it’s not known how many may be unknowingly infected

  • Most who do catch it will recover and for the majority, it will be a relatively mild condition.

  • There are steps you can take to help protect yourself

How can I respond to my child's Coronavirus anxiety?

I think the first response is perspective. While it's important to acknowledge that this situation does require monitoring and is going to increase the anxiety of both adults and children, keeping perspective is important.

  1. "How do you do it?" said night "How do you wake up and shine?" "I keep it simple," said light "One day at a time" Lemn Sissay

Give them clear facts at a level they can understand. Anxiety and fear feeds on anything it can to keep it active, the antidote to fear is hope and the antidote to anxiety is facts, evidence, acceptance and grounding. Focusing on facts and evidence can help reduce anxiety, together with adopting some simple techniques to help with grounding. All we can actually do in this situation is take each day as it comes. If they are particularly anxious, this CBT Anxiety workbook may help (and you don't have to leave the house to get it)

There is a very informative video here and also below, released by the World Health Organization (WHO) that addresses the mental health impact of COVID-19 and how to support yourself and your children. If you specifically want to look at the advice for supporting children go to 12 minutes into the video, which is where it starts below.

Teach them to wash their hands properly

Getting children to wash their hands properly or even regularly can be tricky. I would suggest trying to make it fun rather than fearful. Fear can increase avoidance and therefore cause more issues with handwashing than solve them.

  • Find a song that they like and play or sing it whilst handwashing – trying to get my son to wash his hands to the Happy Birthday song was never going to happen, so he got to choose which one he preferred.

  • Use a spontaneous reward when they have washed their hands

  • Stay with them whilst they wash their hands too – they are more likely to do it if you are present

  • Wash your hands with them, incorporating a game such as making the most amount of soap suds

  • Blow bubbles and clap hands on them, hands get sticky and need washing afterwards

  • Use wet wipes to wipe hands – while long term this is not a viable solution, in the short term it will leave hands cleaner than they were.

Teaching them effective techniques to wash their hands, if they have the ability to do so, empowers them to help themselves.

Working from home

If you're working from home, or they have to stay at home, try to keep as normal a routine as possible. If you do have to work, make sure you give your child(ren) something they can do for half an hour by themselves, preferably while you're in the same room (depending on age). Then take a break with them - go for a walk (if you're not self-isolating), play a game, do some school work that they need your help with, read a book together. Give them your undivided attention.

Then give them a drink and snack and set them up with their own work or task so you can try to get in another half an hour of work. But keep it fluid, mix it up, and avoid looking at COVID-19 related-news in front of them. Or at all. If they ask a question about it, again, keep it simple and stick to the facts.

Helping children understand COVID-19

Keep it simple and ensure you are not anxious when speaking with your child. An anxious child will pick up on your anxiety and not feel safe in trusting the information. Make sure you are fully aware of the facts and evidence when talking about it with your child. If you don't feel you can be calm while doing this, ask your partner or another family member to have that discussion with your child.

At the current time and based on our understanding of what is known of COVID-19 and other similar respiratory Coronaviruses, it is likely that older people and those with chronic medical conditions may be vulnerable to severe disease. As more information emerges, recommendations may change. If your child has a respiratory condition or is immuno-suppressed, contact their specialist or GP for specific advice or check the website for the charity or condition support group concerned. Knowledge is better than fear. There is a BBC article with advice for people with chronic health conditions here

It is important to ensure that any support you give your child is developmentally appropriate. Most of the advice says to be age-appropriate but this is often not the case with children who are disabled or have additional needs. However you usually communicate will be the most effective, but ask their school if they have any pictures or visuals to support your child’s understanding.

Here is an easy-read poster and you can find another longer version here.

Special Needs Jungle provide parent-led information, resources and informed opinion about children and young people 0-25). You can visit their website here:

Image above source: Photo symbols -


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