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UK Psychology professor offers ways to help kids cope with COVID anxiety

UK Now

From routine disruption to social isolation — the COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to impact children in various ways.  This week on Dr. Greg Davis on Medicine Michelle Martel, a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, shares her expertise and offers tips for helping your child cope with COVID anxiety.


Here's a recent Q&A with Dr. Martel courtesy of UK Now:

UKNow: We are living in unprecedented times, which has presented unique challenges for everyone. More specifically, how is the ongoing pandemic impacting children’s mental health?

Martel: According to recent meta-analysis, anxiety and depression has doubled in children and adolescents over the course of the pandemic — particularly depression, and particularly in older adolescent females. (Racine et al., 2021)

UKNow: How does stress manifest itself in children and teens? Are there signs/symptoms parents should be looking for?

Martel: Children and adolescents with depression and/or anxiety often present as highly irritable or with somatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches or difficulty sleeping. Additionally, stress can manifest in the same ways.

UKNow: How can parents help mitigate their child’s overall stress?

Martel: Consistent routines and quality time with parents and peers can help reduce stress. Parents should try to maintain a consistent, soothing bedtime routine — which might include a bath and bedtime reading. It’s also important to schedule time with friends (in low risk, outdoor settings).

UKNow: COVID often dominates mainstream media. That being said, should parents limit exposure to media?

Martel: If your child seems stressed, anxious or depressed about COVID, then decreased exposure to news coverage would likely be beneficial.

UKNow: It’s often difficult to know how much you should be telling children. What is an appropriate age to talk to kids about COVID? And how should parents respond to questions without increasing anxiety?

Martel: I would take your child’s lead, regardless of age. Less is often more (i.e., better), particularly for kids that are easily stressed and/or anxious. But if your child asks questions, it’s important to answer them honestly. According to statistics, COVID is low risk for most children, especially those without preexisting health issues. Periodically, I just remind my children that we need to take precautions, such as wearing masks to protect those who are at higher risk.

UKNow: What if a family member, friend, classmate becomes ill — do you have any tips for how parents should handle that conversation with their child?

Martel: Again, I would stress, COVID is not a major risk for those who don’t have health issues. I often remind my children that for most people, having COVID will not lead to lasting consequences.

UKNow: How important is routine when it comes to managing a child’s anxiety?

Martel: Having a consistent and calm routine, to the extent possible, helps children feel secure and will decrease their anxiety. The best tip I can give caregivers is to manage their own mental health around COVID stressors. Kids are great at picking up on your signals, and if you can “pretend” to be calm, they will stay calm too.

UKNow: Do you have any additional suggestions for what parents can do to distract children from worrying about COVID?

Martel: Try to engage children in low(er) risk activities, such as anything outside. If you keep them busy and try to model calmness via routine and limiting news media exposure, that will go a long way.

UKNow: Any tips/tricks for promoting hand-washing, masking and social distancing for children?

Martel: Make masking and hand-washing fun! Let your child pick out their own mask, if possible. My 4-year-old has an Elsa mask, as well as a rainbow unicorn mask, and she loves wearing them. We also have several scented hand sanitizers. Schedule lower risk outdoor activities, play dates and sporting activities with people you know and trust to keep your child engaged in safer social interactions.

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