• Behavior
  • Parenting

How to manage post-pandemic anxiety in children

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Teen girl on a bed, burying her head in a pillow in a dark room.
Navigating the twists and turns of childhood naturally can spark some worry in kids, but families say the global pandemic – which disrupted daily routines and alienated children from friends and family – has left a lingering rise in anxiety.

“Globally, up to 1 in 5 youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms,” says Diane Kelly (Andreou), PhD, Clinic Director of Behavioral Health at Boys Town South Florida. “This is double the pre-pandemic estimates, and especially true for older children and girls.”

The physical and mental effects of anxiety can manifest anytime, anywhere, creating a domino effect of discomfort and behavioral issues throughout the day. Irritability, headaches, stomachaches, phantom pains, as well as difficulty controlling worrisome thoughts, are common signs of overly anxious children. 

Kelly says younger children may have difficulty sleeping alone, show an increase in tantrums and meltdowns, get upset more easily, constantly seek reassurance, and become more attached and ‘clingy.’ Older children, however, can struggle to fall and stay asleep, become argumentative, isolate themselves, and withdraw from their usual social settings and extracurricular activities. 

Aside from age, gender can also play a role in how anxious feelings are processed and expressed. “Girls tend to internalize symptoms,” says Diana Cardona, LMHC, Clinical Director of Behavioral Health Services and Kin Support Program for Families First of Palm Beach County. “Boys externalize symptoms that are often seen in anger, irritability, aggression, and high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse.” 

Cardona says there is hope for parents and guardians to help children lessen their anxiety, whether at home or through additional support. “From a treatment perspective, clinicians are using evidence-based interventions to assist children with processing their level of anxiety or stress.” She notes that play therapy, sand tray therapy, and eye-movement desensitization are just a few of the interventions that can help. 

“There is also evidence that supports the impact of social activities, journaling, sports, mindfulness, and general movement that directly impacts the level of anxiety and stress experienced in any young person or adult,” Cardona says. 

In addition to children, parents and guardians have had to deal with their own stressors from the pandemic while trying to safely guide their children through these unchartered waters. Kelly says managing the basics—sleep, activity, and a healthy diet—can have positive effects on the entire family. 

“Keep a routine with reasonable expectations, have meals together, talk about highs and lows and successes and challenges, spend time outdoors, limit device time, and learn calming strategies,” she says. “Give opportunities for success, and the child will improve their self-concept and confidence.” 

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