How to speak to your children about ‘unknowns'

If you're stressed, your kids probably are too, experts say

Children getting anxious as pandemic continues
Children getting anxious as pandemic continues

DETROIT – From health to the school year, there are so many unknowns that can stress parents out.

And if parents are feeling stressed, the children probably are too.

More than half of all parents in a recent survey said their children are feeling anxious or depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to mental health experts, there are things you can do as a parent to ease some of your children’s stress.

Read more: Kids at Home

“We’re living through a scary time so just like children would have bad dreams and they’d be afraid about the monster in the room, the monsters in the whole world,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell. “Children are having to figure out how to feel safe and it’s very difficult without adult or parental guidance.”

Rockwell said now than ever before, parents have to do more to make their children feel safe.

“In the same way that we would help a child see that there is no monster in the closet, we can help them see that the monsters in the world are not going to hurt us and mommy and daddy are here for you to protect you, so that they have a sense of calm and relaxation and trust. Trust in the world and trust in our parents,” Rockwell said.

Rockwell tells parents that children are afraid of the unknown and the more you can help them dispel some of the myths that may be frightening, the more secure they will feel.

“As adults we’re afraid and so how can our children do anything but absorb that feeling and also feel afraid?” Rockwell asked. “It is important for us to figure out how to calm ourselves down first -- which is self care -- then we can be present for our children. The old putting our oxygen mask on first before assisting others before assisting our children, and at the same time, we’re teaching them self care, so that they are watching us take care of ourselves, and thus learning how to take care of themselves when they get activated or anxious or afraid. So the boogeyman in the closet can be dispelled by simply being with our children.”

For parents of younger children, she recommends being as specific as possible when reassuring them.

“What we need to do is be really really concrete and say, ‘Mommy can’t wait to play with you,' and ’30 minutes, one half an hour, I will be finished with my work and then, boy, are we going to have some fun together,‘” Rockwell said. “You give them something to look forward to and they -- also in a concrete way -- know that for one half hour only, well, they have to wait for mom. So it sounds like offering them that security.”

But it’s important to follow through on your promises, she said.

Health experts claim that even during a time of stress, families can learn from each other about resilience and coping.

“We need to learn how to practice mindfulness, or what shall we call it being present in the moment. So we’re exercising this muscle, the brain and we can’t do it without making friends with our brain when we’re very anxious,” Rockwell said. “Instead of feeling more anxious and getting angry with ourselves for feeling this way, what I do is I just say, ‘I’m activated right now. Let me breathe. Let me take a minute, let me calm down,' And it really works.”

If your toddlers or teenagers are cranky and regressing, Rockwell said that’s normal and they just want extra attention -- a common sign of stress in children. But it can often be difficult for children to express those feelings.

Read more: Kids at Home

Click here to learn more about Dr. Donna Rockwell.

About the Authors:

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.