Anxious thoughts and feelings in the age of pandemics and uncertainty – How can we help our children and teens

Ok, I must admit when I pulled up to our local grocery store in the middle of a typical work day to find a full parking lot and checkouts with long lines, I started to feel a little uneasy. To add to my nerves were the empty aisles of canned goods and toilet paper and the hushed side conversations between couples and families on the current Covid 19 pandemic situation while shopping.

If you are reading this and beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable or nervous, you are not alone and this is a normal response to the fear of the unknown.

Times are uncertain, and information regarding this situation is changing rapidly. The thing is, and this might sound like a bold statement, times are always uncertain and things are always changing and transforming.

So why might this feel different?

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Well for one, the amount of communication coming our way regarding this situation is intense and reaching many facets of our lives; politics, national sports, social media, global neighbours, and local communities. If we have the same messages on repeat coming at us from many sources, it begins to infiltrate- the psychology of panic.

It is like taking a hyper powerful microscope and pointing it right on the coronavirus- it will look quite dramatic and absolute from that lens. Historical peaks in flu season are typically December, February and March in North America, we know that other strains of coronavirus such as SARS and MERS have shown much higher mortality rates, and we know that focusing on basic hygiene practices can be effective ways to minimize the spread of viruses. This information however, may fall into the background during the panicked feelings under the hyper powerful microscope.

The best thing we may do is to zoom that microscope out, get a wider perspective, and use that larger understanding to guide us through yet another moment in time that has uncertainty.

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RESILIENCE AND ADAPTABILITY– Life is just this- it is uncertain and is in constant flux of change and transformation. Yet, we do not (for the most part) hyperfocus on the fact that we may get into an accident today or that a natural disaster may hit at any given moment. We manage, we tolerate, and we accept a certain amount of unknown to live. We share those traits of resilience with our children as well. We teach them the joy in playing together, the enjoyment of a good meal, the mundane of boring but necessary tasks, and the comfort in connecting with someone we love. All of this exists within the bigger scope of life’s uncertainty but the focus shifts, the attention is drawn elsewhere. Take a moment to highlight your child/teen’s resources and resilience to life’s general unknowns and how they are already handling it, they’ve got this and so do you!

things are always changing and transforming, so why might this feel different?

LIMITING ACCESS TO INFORMATION THAT WILL FUEL THE FIRE OF PANIC– Of course, having some information can be helpful to have a sense of preparedness and knowing how to respond. However, the is a point when the amount of information we and our children are receiving is not serving those purposes anymore and is simply sending us into a state of anxiety and alarm. Now there is no magic here in terms of how much information is too much.

Consider your child/teens age and their developmental stage. If they are 5, the information we will share with them will likely be a lot simpler and lot less than if they are 15. Consider their personality: is my teen someone who is naturally more anxious? Is my child someone who already worries about health matters? Is my child someone who just really isn’t phased by too much?  Consider your family values and what you believe young people should know and think about the current environment in which you live in.

In our case, being a family involved in different sports, the cancellations have been something we have had to address with our kids. You are the expert of your own family. Focus on providing truthful information, the minimum you need to help support your child and teen. Know that your conversation may have “I don’t knows” and unknowns with the possibility of giving more information if a child/teen is asking or it feels important to do so. You can always give more information, you can’t really take away information.

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SHARING ACCURATE AND TRUTHFUL INFORMATION– Think about what kind of information you are sharing with your child/teen and how you are sharing this information. Where are you getting your information? Is it on the latest Facebook feed or from someone in the checkout line at the grocery store? Where are your children/teens getting their information and what are they hearing? Find sources that you feel are as accurate as possible and reputable. I am currently checking in with the Alberta Health Services page, the Government of Canada page, and I have checked the World Health Organization site. I appreciate places where I can find the most factual information and information on how we can respond to minimize the spread.

It’s also important to think about how we are sharing information with our kiddos. Try delivering information in a way that is consistent, calm, and honest. It’s ok to share some feelings of worry and uncertainty, but probably best to avoid panicked delivered message.

ROUTINES– When there are cancellations of sporting events, gatherings, hobbies, and in some cases school, life can quickly feel out of control. As parents, focus on ways that you can promote routine and predictability. If your children/teens are staying home from school, are there some basic school tasks  they can do for part of the day (reading, some math, working on an assignment)? Can you offer some time outside, some art making, or some scheduled meal times that provide routine?

If sports plans or events you were going to attend were cancelled, check-in with your child/teen and see what they might want to do instead. Would they still like to get some exercise, even if it’s taking the dog for a walk, or shooting some hoops with you at the local school. Consider how they continue to connect with their peers and provide opportunities for this to happen.

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KEEP THE FUN GOING​- Life continues in the face of change and the unknown. Continue to encourage conversations outside of this topic. Share funny stories and experiences that keep positive emotions flowing. Continue to encourage fun and laughter. Create opportunities for excitement, joy, doing things they enjoy, and connections with others. You may not be going to public spaces in the same way at this time, but you could try playing board games, going outdoors (weather permitting), spending some time as a family, inviting a few friends over, etc.

INFORM CHILDREN/TEENS ON WHAT THEY CAN CONTROL– Letting young people know that they can be an important part of prevention and they can help and do their part can be very meaningful and supportive. Informing them about health hygiene practices like hand washing, coughing and sneezing “properly” into your ‘chicken wing’, and social distancing are all things children and teens can be active agents in.

Photo by CDC – Unsplash

HARNESS OPPORTUNITIES TO HELP OTHERS– In heightened moments of uncertainty, being able to help others and to feel part of a community can be important. Consider ideas that help your child/teen feel like they are part of a caring community. Maybe they are an advocate for handwashing at their school, maybe they are delivering a box of food to the doorstep of someone who is not feeling well, maybe they are the calm presence for someone who is feeling panicked.

There you have it.

​I’d like to take a moment to thank Renee Jain for providing some interview information on how to help young people manage anxiety regarding the coronavirus.

portrait of Chantal outside in a fieldChantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to or DM us via Instagram or Facebook.