11 ways to cope with anxiety about the omicron variant
The highly contagious omicron COVID-19 variant, coupled with a return to school after winter break, has many parents worried about their children’s physical and mental health and safety.
As we move toward our third year of living in a pandemic, this is completely understandable.
Here, CHOC pediatric mental health experts offer 11 things that parents can do to help children – and themselves – cope with anxiety and stress related to the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Validate feelings
It is OK and very normal for children to feel anxious about the omicron variant, talk of surges and the ongoing nature of the pandemic. Tell your child this and validate their feelings. And for parents, it’s OK and normal to feel anxious about this as well. You’re both doing a great job!
Talk to children about what is happening and what they can expect. Keep conversations age-appropriate, being careful not to share unnecessary information. Be mindful too that children may overhear adult chatter about the pandemic.
3. Reassure safety
Parents should stay calm and positive, and remind children that adults are working together to keep kids safe from COVID-19. When it comes to heading back to school, while we can’t promise children they won’t get sick, we can show them that we are confident in the measures and precautions schools are taking. Here’s a list of what Orange County schools are doing to protect children, as well as teachers and staff.
Outside of school, parents can also review with children how their family has stayed safe at home and in public, such as by wearing masks, washing hands frequently, maintaining social distance, and getting vaccinated against COVID-19, if eligible.
Also, here is some added reassurance from a CHOC infectious disease specialist: The CDC has said that COVID-19 vaccines are expected to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths from the omicron variant – as well as other variants. Breakthrough infections may occur, but the vaccine will protect against severe illness.
4. Promote flexibility
While routine and structure is important, flexibility is also key. Given the pandemic’s fluid nature, it’s prudent to have conversations about how conditions, routines and environments may change in the future.
5. Work on emotional identification
Work together with children to help them communicate and understand their feelings. This is called emotional literacy. A tool like a “feelings chart” where different faces illustrate feelings can help children identify what they might be experiencing. Movies like “Inside Out” also do a great job teaching emotional literacy.
6. Normalize not always being OK
Let your child know that it’s understandable if they feel uneasy about how things are right now.
Create opportunities with your child to discuss how challenging COVID-19 is for so many people; the different ways these challenges may show up in our daily lives; and to brainstorm ideas on how to cope. This can build a pattern of communication in which your child notices warning signs of burnout sooner and can let you know when they need help.
7. Explain and model emotion regulation
Children take cues from their parents about how to respond to situations. Those nerves may be mutual, so parents should model their emotions appropriately. Use this as an opportunity to model coping skills. For example, a parent might say, “When Dad is feeling worried, he takes three deep breaths.”
Here’s a tip sheet for building “pocket” coping skills – simple techniques that people of all ages can employ to reduce stress and anxiety.
Children respond well to praise. Parents should be sure to call out behaviors they want to reinforce. For example, “I loved how you kept your mask up over your nose at the grocery store.”
9. Limit media exposure
Media and social media coverage of the pandemic in constant, but absorbing it for too long can compound the stress. Even if children aren’t actively watching or reading news, they may overhear news reports or glimpse headlines. Older children may have their own access to computers and social media.
It’s also helpful for grownups to limit their own media consumption around COVID-19 too. Try sticking to a few trusted resources such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to prevent information overload and anxiety.
Here is detailed information about monitoring a child’s media exposure during the pandemic.
10. Emphasize kindness
As always, it is helpful to teach kids to continue to be kind to all people. Kindness is always possible – even when they feel afraid.
It is important to remind children that we are all trying our best to stay healthy and it’s not anyone’s fault if they do get sick.
11. Model positive behavior
Parents who show good coping skills can help reassure kids that they are safe. After all, kids learn from their parents how to react in new situations.
Adults should model self-care behaviors: Maintain activities and sleep schedules. Eat healthfully and practice hand hygiene and cough etiquette.
Here is information for parents and caregivers about preventing burnout.
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.