How to support children's mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Daily coronavirus updates, and the public concern they bring, can cause stress and anxiety for children. A psychiatry professor is advising parents not to be surprised or dismissive at their children's anxiety.

Experts advise parents not to be dismissive to questions and provide structure for kids

Dr. Peter Silverstone is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He says parents shouldn't be dismissive to questions from their children about coronavirus. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Silverstone. )

Daily coronavirus updates, and the public concern they bring, can cause stress and anxiety for children, says a psychiatry professor at the University of Alberta.

Peter Silverstone said it's common for children to feel anxiety and unsurprising they may feel this way even more during the coronavirus pandemic.

He advises parents not to be surprised or dismissive at their children's anxiety.

To support them, parents first need to be aware of their own mental health concerns, Silverstone said, and take measures to address those as needed, because children are sensitive to their parents' anxiety.

But what's especially important, he said, is to take children's concerns seriously.

He said parents should ask their children what they've already heard about coronavirus.

After knowing this, he said over-explaining can often be better than under-explaining so long as the advice is accurate, comprehensive and age-appropriate.

"Never use 'Oh, don't worry about that. Everything will be fine,'" said Silverstone who spoke with CBC's Radio Active on Friday.

"Clearly, they are anxious and simplistic assurances rarely work. So that is not the thing to do. It's to take their fears seriously and then address them."

The need to talk to children about coronavirus, and help them cope with any negative effects it could have on their mental health was talked about by Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw on Thursday,

"It is important that all parents talk to their children in a factual age-appropriate way. Let them know that worrying is a normal and healthy response." Hinshaw said.

"Parents should make their children feel safe and educate them on everyday actions they can take to help them reduce the spread of germs."

Silverstone also recommended ensuring structure and daily routine in childrens' lives.

Finding ways for kids to have daily interactions with other people is helpful, even if it's remotely via Skype or Facetime. Structured activities that are led by the child at the same time each day helps too, Silverstone said.

Personal exercise is also importance for kids and parents, Silverstone said.

"People underestimate how important (exercise) can be to manage anxiety. Being out, as appropriate, all of these things make a difference," Silverstone said.

He also recommended the free resources available through Anxiety Canada to help parents manage anxiety for themselves and their families.

Coping language that helps children focus on what they can do to help during the pandemic, are also helpful for parents to use said clinical psychologist at the University of Calgary Nicole Racine.

Racine recommended parents be open and honest, and help children feel more in control by telling them how washing their hands or coughing into their sleeves can help stop the spread of germs.

On top of this, Racine said parents should limit their children's exposure to media where there's often a lot of information they might not understand.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there, and I think it's important to provide kids with accurate information," said Racine, who spoke to CBC's Edmonton AM Friday.

Racine also recommended parents talk to their children about how staying home from school can also help in removing opportunities for the germs to spread.

"Especially right now when we don't have a lot of information about how it spreads or what's going to happen next, that staying home from school and limiting interactions with friends just means that germs can't spread and gives it a greater chance that it will go away," Racine said.

But what makes this difficult, Silverstone said, is that there's no other event he can recall that is similar to the multiple sources of anxiety combining for Albertans currently.

"The problem for this particular episode is that we have the combination of a severe threat that's rather unquantifiable, it's invisible in the sense that we don't know who has it and who doesn't, and it's accompanied, particularly in Alberta, by marked economic uncertainty, which is getting worse," Silverstone said.

"It does really feel that there are multiple similar threats at the same time."