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‘She just started sobbing’: Parents struggle to help kids cope with COVID-19 anxiety

Carmen Orosanu says the outbursts are sudden and heartbreaking. Like the time her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Emma broke down at bedtime. Orosanu’s voice begins to waver as she recounts it.

“She just started sobbing and saying, ‘I don’t want to go to heaven.'”

The mother of three, with a baby on the way, Orosanu is like many parents struggling to calm their childrens’ sudden fears and anxieties around the COVID-19 outbreak. The Hamilton mother says it’s a challenge, because she doesn’t have all the answers either. 

“It’s sad. This is a very new situation for everybody, so I wasn’t really sure how to cope with it. I think I get more emotional than my husband. So he came in and, you know, we just hugged her.”

Orosanu says she and her husband try to limit conversations about the coronavirus in front of their children, other than to remind them of the importance of washing their hands.

Still, the children are absorbing snippets of news and conversations. Her five-year-old son Nicholas, she says, doesn’t want her to have the baby, afraid that when she goes to the hospital she won’t come back.

It’s a new, scary world, and for many children and young people across the country it has led to soaring levels of anxiety.

Katherine Hay is the president and CEO of Kids Help Phone, a 24/7 free online and telephone counselling service for youth across Canada. Hay says traffic on the Kids Help Phone website is at an unprecedented high.

Calls for help are doubling every week, climbing to nearly 2,000 a day. They come in the form of texts, phone calls and some live chat. Children as young as five are reaching out.

Katherine Hay, president and CEO of Kids Help Phone, told CBC in a video-call that traffic on the website of the 24/7 free online and telephone counselling service for youth across Canada is at an unprecedented high. (CBC)

“We hear fear — fear not only in how they’re speaking, but the actual words, their fear for their friends. They’re worried about their mom and dad. They’re worried about their sister, brother.”

The percentage of acute cases is also rising with the added volume of calls, Hay says.

About 20 per cent of the young people Kids Help Phone responds to are contemplating suicide. On a recent Sunday afternoon alone, Kay says counsellors were involved in 12 active rescues of young people attempting to end their lives.

A recent $7.5 million federal funding boost is helping manage the need, Hay says. So are hundreds of new volunteers. 

“The silver lining — and there are silver linings everywhere — is that someone was on the other side of that phone call or that text and helping that young person through whatever it was that they needed some help with at that moment.”

Kids Help Line is also receiving calls from adults and parents and other caregivers looking for help and looking for advice wherever they can find it.

Leanne Matlow is a cognitive behavioural counsellor who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety. In the past few weeks, she’s given several virtual talks to community groups in the Toronto area.

Matlow says many of her clients are rattled by a loss of control and not knowing what will come next. Or when.

Even though parents don’t have the answers, Matlow says listening is key. And Matlow advises parents to avoid calling these unsettling times “the new normal.”

“For many people, just saying this is the new normal is very anxiety-provoking, because it makes it sound like it’s a state of permanence. That we’re never going to get out of it. I like the phrase ‘for now.’  It’s more of thinking about putting a pause button.”

Leanne Matlow, a cognitive behavioural counsellor who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety, told CBC in a video-call that even though parents don’t have the answers, listening to children is key. (CBC)

Matlow says parents can help empower their children to come up with strategies to cope. 

“It’s OK to be angry, frustrated, scared, nervous, worried,” Matlow says.

“So the question is, what can I do for myself when I’m feeling that way? What can we do for each other in this house when one of us is feeling that way?”

Back in Hamilton, Orosanu is trying to stay positive, too. With a new baby just weeks away, she encourages her children to imagine playing with their new sibling or to think of all the fun activities they can do when the pandemic is over. 

The future is uncertain, but the promise of a better one is comforting, Orosanu says.

“Every day is a different strategy, and the fact that we talk about what we can do afterwards, it seems to help.”

From neighbourhoods standing outside to thank front-line workers to online campaigns, Canadians are finding ways to show their thanks during the COVID-19 pandemic. 4:51

Leanne Matlow offers these suggestions for families dealing with anxiety and stress:

  1. Parents should keep their own anxieties in check and do their best to model coping strategies.
  2. Parents should watch their “safety language” and avoid catastrophic statements such as “this will never end” or “you don’t want to be one of the millions who die.” These raise the level of anxiety.
  3. Parents should keep discussions about employment and money to themselves, and not involve or discuss them in front of the children.
  4. Limit media consumption (news feeds, radio and TV) to once or twice a day.
  5. Everyone should ask for help when they need it — it’s a sign of strength, not of weakness, no matter what your age.
  6. Keep as close as possible to a schedule for waking, sleeping and mealtimes. Involve the kids in the menu planning and meal preparation.
  7. Chores are good for everyone to do.
  8. Answer your child’s questions with age-appropriate information. Let them know you are there to listen if they have questions or want to talk, but take the lead from them.
  9. Focus on the NOW. “Today we will …”
  10. Find joy and gratitude in the small moments: board games, planting a garden, baking cookies, and so on.

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