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Raising Emotionally Healthy Children, During the Pandemic and Beyond

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Weill Cornell Medicine, in conjunction with the 92Y, presented a full-day summit about mental health for the public. Throughout the day, experts from Weill Cornell Medicine shared their insights about mental health, mental illness, and other important topics, answering attendants’ questions along the way.  

During one session, Dr. Shannon Bennett presented her insights as to how parents and caretakers can help raise emotionally healthy children, focusing on anxiety in children and young adults.  

At Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Bennett is director of psychology of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and clinical director for the Youth Anxiety Center 

Her message is powerful at any time, but especially now. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are navigating so many changes, stresses, and uncertainties. Many children and young adults are experiencing higher levels of anxiety.  

Foundational information for all parents and all situations 

Before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important for parents to understand childhood anxiety to promote greater emotional well-being for their children. By understanding foundational information about anxiety and emotional development, parents can better guide their children, notice warning signs, and seek help when needed.  

A certain amount of anxiety is natural and normal. First, anxiety is normal and common among children and youth. It is a natural and normal part of development. “Anxiety is a normal and natural emotion and it is very important,” explained Dr. Bennett. “It's crucial that we experience anxiety and fear. If we didn't, we would all run around doing really dangerous things.”  

“But,” she continued, “when the anxiety no longer matches the situation, then it can start to impair performance. It can steal our attention and concentration. It can keep us awake at night when it would be better for us to be sleeping. It can cause aches and pains and it can start to become more interfering. So anxiety is normal, but it can become out of proportion to the situation. At this point, it becomes overly distressing or overly interfering. And that’s the time when we might want to seek out a professional assessment or intervention.”  

There are many different signs and symptoms of anxiety in children and young adults. “There’s lots of different ways that anxiety can manifest, and it’s different for different people. And there’s lots of different types of anxiety,” she explained. “There’s a very physical component to anxiety: headaches, stomach aches, nausea, muscle aches, pain. So if you’re seeing physical complaints, that’s a sign to go to the doctor to check out the physical symptoms. If there’s no medical explanation, then start to think about other psychological reasons why the child may be experiencing those physical pains. Our bodies respond to stress in very real ways.”  

Avoidance, excessive outbursts, and a need for frequent reassurance are other signs of anxiety. These signs and symptoms tend to worsen during times of change, such as when children go back to school 

The only way to learn coping skills and resilience is to practice. “If we never experienced hardship or stress, we will never learn how to cope with hardship and stress. This is an unfortunate reality of life,” asserted Dr. Bennett. “We need family support and teacher support and network support, but not overprotection. Youth need to experience anxiety and stress to learn how to manage it effectively throughout their lives. And this looks different at different stages of development.”  

“Our gut instinct as a parent is to protect and to keep our youth safe and to try to clear away any hardship that may stand in their way—which is really, really well-intentioned—but can sometimes lead to accommodation or facilitation of anxiety and avoidance. We want to find this appropriate balance between support and accommodation, which is hard,” she explained.  

Strategies for parents to help children with anxiety and emotional difficulties 

At Weill Cornell Medicine, we understand that the realities of COVID-19 and social distancing can be emotionally difficult for children, teens, and young adults. We are here to support their mental health during this challenging time. During her presentation, Dr. Bennett outlines some strategies for parents to help their children during this time and beyond.  

Try to create a consistent environment and routine. Consistency helps children feel safe and comfortable. With school and daycare closures, as well as changes in routines because of social distancing, your children will crave routine more than ever.  

“It's good for kids who are anxious,” she detailed. “It's good for kids who are very active or even hyperactive. Promoting a balance of different types of activities, making sure kids are having fun.” Dr. Bennett also recommends doing things for other people as a part of your family’s daily routine, such as writing cards to loved ones.  

 Model healthy behavior. “We can have set household behavioral rules and expectations as a kind of code of conduct that the parents create and kids need to learn to follow,” she said. “This includes rules around electronics and phones and social media. As parents we have to model all of this. We have to put our electronics down. We have to make these things a priority.”  

Prioritize talking about emotions. Dr. Bennett asserted that, in general, we don’t talk about our own emotions enough with our children. “We don’t want to overshare with our kids,” she explained. “But we can find opportunities to say, ‘I feel really angry. I’m going to take a deep breath.’ Or, ‘I had to do something that was really scary, but I told myself that it was going to be ok. I was able to get through it.’”  

She also recommended making an effort to praise your child when they handle their emotions in a healthy way. It’s important to recognize your kids’ strengths. “We spend a lot of time focusing on the things that they’re not doing well enough,” she said. “We really want to make sure we’re taking advantage of the things they’re really good at and using that to help them. For example, ‘You’re really good at solving problems in your video games. How can you think like that when you’re stressed with a school project?’”  

Take “time outs.” When families are living, working, studying, and playing in close proximity, they will need breaks from one another. “Sometimes this means taking personal timeouts,” explained Dr. Bennett. “Sometimes that means taking deep breaths. Sometimes that means letting your kid run in circles in a safe space until they can calm down a little bit. Or as adults, we can go for a run and it shifts our perspective on things.”  

Give your child extra attention and love when needed“Your attention is a powerful tool,” asserted Dr. Bennett. “Our attention as parents and adults is one of the most powerful reinforcers of kids’ behavior.”  

Dr. Bennett recommended praising your child very specifically for emotionally healthy actions. “We call this label praise,” she explained. “It's a very specific labeling of what it is that we notice. Not just, ‘Great job, buddy.’ But, ‘I saw how you patted your friend on the back when he made that goal. You showed great sportsmanship. That was awesome.’ Be very specific about what it is that you are proud of and, ultimately, want to see more of.” 

During COVID-19, parents may praise their children for talking about their emotions, asking questions about the pandemic, working well independently when asked to, or doing something to help another family member.  

Seek help when needed. Parents should seek out the help of a specialist if they believe their child’s anxiety is becoming debilitating or interfering with their daily life. Also, parents should seek help if they are struggling to manage their emotions or if their anxiety is making it more difficult to parent. The mental health professionals at Weill Cornell Medicine are delivering care to existing clients via telemedicine during the pandemic.  

As parents, one of the best ways we can help our children during this time is focusing on our own mental well-being. When parents care for themselves, they are better able to care for their children.  

Remember that children (and parents) are more resilient than we often thinkDuring this difficult time, it’s impossible to have all the answers. It’s normal and natural to be worried, agitated, sad, and angry at times. It can be easy to become overwhelmed with worry about how the pandemic is affecting our children.  

Based on evidence about trauma, we know that children will experience frustration and anxiety in the short term, but it does not mean that there will be lasting psychological damage. Children have the capacity to cope with difficult situations. By talking extensively about emotions, we will help them better understand their own mental health, as well as how to manage stress and anxiety in the future.  

All of us at Weill Cornell Medicine understand that this is a difficult time for all New Yorkers. As experts in immunology, psychiatry, pulmonary medicine, and critical care medicine, we are working diligently to provide the best possible care to patients in need.   

We are available to all New Yorkers who have questions or concerns. Please call our hotline at (646) 697-4000 for information about COVID-19 or read our patient guide.