Help... My Child is Terrified of People!
By Jenn Worley, LPC
As Covid continues to alter everyday interactions, there’s an issue that is being shared more frequently. Parents are discussing the fear that their school aged children and / or adolescents have for other people. Panic attacks after going to the store, jumping from play structures when another child approaches, difficulty sleeping, and refusing to be apart from a parent, are just a few examples of actions of kids who are fearful of others. Parents are wondering what can be said or done to help move towards caution oriented thinking and decision making. The following are a few considerations to support children coping with current unknowns and a changing social interaction landscape.
Developing consistent certainties your child can rely on. Sleep, nutrition, activity levels, things to look forward to plus routine all matter when coping with chronic stress. It's difficult to overstate how important routines and schedules are during times of uncertainty, yet they are often the first thing to fall to the side. With school starting, virtually or in person, now is a great natural time to revisit routines in an intentional way.
Modeling a sense of agency (a sense of control through initiating and executing one's own actions): As a support strategy, consider modeling intentional decision making, rather than reactivity based on the actions of others. Intentional decisions based on your boundaries and norms taps into a sense of agency, which is critical for coping with stress and anxiety. For example: It’s a beautiful day and the family decides to go to a park to enjoy it. You get there and see it’s pretty active and that doesn’t feel comfortable to you. This could be communicated as… It’s way too full, look, those people aren’t even standing away from one another and that kid isn’t wearing a mask. Another way to say that is: Looks like we all had the same idea! I prefer there be fewer people, let’s look for a different one. Same message of we aren’t going to this park today in both examples. The delivery in the second example is helping to focus on the adult’s own sphere of influence and action within that sphere. The first example has the emphasis on what others are doing. By having a minor shift of expression which narrates your own norms rather than someone else’s actions, the sense of control via initiating your own action is protected..
Acknowledging this is uncomfortable. Acknowledgement is a tool that can help avoid the pitfalls of minimizing or inflaming emotion. A simple statement such as... I agree it does feel a little strange to be at the store again doesn't it? Or, yep, this is a bit different than we did last month...can go far with helping to cope with the discomfort. The acknowledgement is a way to let your child know that you hear him or her and can be helpful in working to impact the anxiety that has built these past months with regards to interactions. It also is important in the work of being able to tolerate some discomfort rather than being consumed by panic.
Just like all of us, kids are absorbing messages and doing their best to understand what this all means for them. Moving from high contact to no contact to some contact with people is particularly hard to make sense of. It can feel like you are second guessing every activity that used to be completely a given and is often exhausting.
Compassion, understanding, acknowledging the cumulative and complicated nature of covid stressors is a foundation to return to when feeling tired or overwhelmed.
If you are wondering how to help your child or family member cope, reach out and get support in ways that are meaningful to you. Supporting one another can look many different ways, and maybe in this case, it means helping to sort out what connection looks like today vs yesterday vs tomorrow.
If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Jenn, you can reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call our intake line: 608-709-6972.
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]