Listening to Kids and Validating Their Feelings

Coping with Anxiety in the Pandemic and After

Inside the Yale Child Study Center

Feeling anxious and sad is a normal part of the human experience. Situations involving unpredictability and isolation such as the COVID-19 pandemic can heighten these emotions. Research will be essential in determining the long-term effects, if any.

“We know that children can be quite resilient following hardships, especially with the right supports in place,” said Rebecca Etkin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in the Anxiety Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center. 

If anxiety or depression is beginning to lead to problems in daily functioning — such as trouble completing tasks or activities — then it might be time to seek professional help, Elkin said. 

“From what we have seen in our clinic, it really depends on the nature of the anxiety,” Elkin said. “Some children who tend to worry about topics such as health and safety appear to be experiencing more anxiety. However, other children who tend to worry about attending school, interacting with others, or being away from their parents are actually experiencing less anxiety, as COVID-19 has largely made it possible to avoid these situations.”

For these children, it will be important to keep an eye on their level of anxiety as they transition back to “normal life,” Elkin said. As to whether she anticipates long-term damage to children’s mental health as a result of the pandemic, “not necessarily,” was her response. 

“So often our desire to help children feel better actually leads us to minimize their feelings,” Elkin said. “Rather, one of the best ways to help children develop coping skills is by listening to and validating their feelings, while also expressing confidence in their ability to withstand them.”

Along these lines, she said, “Praising or acknowledging when a child has coped with a difficult feeling, or gotten through something even though it was challenging, can be incredibly powerful. Parents and teachers can also help by using or modeling coping skills themselves, such as taking a deep breath or a short break when feeling anxious or frustrated, talking through worries in a more helpful or realistic way, and showing flexibility and problem-solving when things don’t go exactly as planned.”

The mission of the Yale Child Study Center is to improve the mental health of children and families, advance understanding of their psychological and developmental needs, and treat and prevent childhood mental illness through the integration of research, clinical practice, and professional training. 

The community can also make a meaningful impact. Children are absolutely influenced by the attitudes and actions of their families and the people around them, according to Elkin. 

“Communities can help by continuing to band together and conveying confidence in the ability to overcome hardships,” she said. “Adults in the community can help by making sure they are addressing their own needs (mental health and otherwise) so that they can best support children.”

Some kids have more vulnerability. If kids are anxious, parents shouldn’t feel it’s their fault, she said. Seeking help from the community, friends or mental health professionals is sign of strength, not a reflection on their ability to be a good parent.

“If your kid has a cold, it’s not your fault, and you take them to the doctor,” she said. Seeking mental health care for anxiety or depression should be the same. “Parents shouldn’t feel bad or blame themselves.” 

She urged parents to “Give yourself permission to build in time that’s enjoyable in the vein of self-care, doing things that make you feel like a valuable person worth taking care of. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” To take good care of their kids, parents first must first take care of themselves. She used the metaphor of putting on their oxygen mask first on an airplane.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened everyone’s anxiety. “This is new to us,” Elkin said. “We don’t have years of experience. We’re doing our best and getting through it. Don’t take a few bad days or a missed assignment as a sign or failure. You will get through it. My best advice is to give yourself a break.”

Marissa Falcone of Easton is a postgraduate research associate at the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center. Falcone was educated in Easton public schools and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology/sociology at Lafayette College. The program offers comprehensive evaluations and treatments for children and adolescents ages 6 to 14 years. Services are provided at no cost to families who agree to participate in research but can otherwise be provided for a fee with a sliding scale plan also available.

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