Q: Since the coronavirus pandemic started, my eight-year-old daughter has been very anxious about catching the virus and is nervous about people coming near her or touching anything at all outside. How can I stop her being so anxious?
A: Clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland Galway and author of Love In Love Out — A Compassionate Approach to Parenting Your Anxious Child, says: “This health crisis has been challenging for many, especially those prone to anxiety.
“My experience as an anxious child, as a parent and as a clinical psychologist, has taught me that parents play a crucial role in containing their child’s anxiety, and in finding the tricky balance between helping them to feel safe and empowering them to test their fears.
“To find this balance, I developed the four steps of the SAFE Chain of Resilience, which may be of benefit to you:
“Self-care: Your daughter being anxious about catching the virus must be taking a toll on you as a parent as you want to help her so much. How do you feel when she’s anxious? What messages might you be conveying in the way you respond (through your words and body language)?
“Do you feel calmer when you’ve managed to look after your own ‘self-care’ needs?
“Anchoring: In the midst of a fight or flight situation, remaining calm and using relaxation or stress reduction techniques will facilitate your daughter tuning into what’s happening inside her body, imagining her heart and breath slowing, her chest softening, relating to herself with kindness as she rides the fear through, and most of all feeling anchored by your sense of safe.
“Feeling felt: Although it’s tempting to try to ‘stop’ your daughter’s anxiety by smoothing it over or problem-solving her feeling, what she needs from you during an anxious moment is to ‘feel felt’ and truly understood. Breathe and reflect back her words: ‘You’re scared you might catch the virus if you meet someone on our walk today. That must be really hard. I’m here for you.’
“Empowerment: Although parents understandably want to get to problem-solving, it’s only when your daughter’s safety needs have been met that she’s in a position to try anxiety-management techniques.
“Talking to her about how her anxiety affects her thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and behaviour will empower her.
“Asking her to draw a picture of what her anxiety looks like may help loosen her fears. Designing a ‘fear ladder’ together may help, where she’s encouraged to face her fears in tiny steps to be mastered at her pace with lots of praise.
“Your bond together has the power to help your daughter through her anxiety with your loving support by her side.”