Birthdays in lockdown. Weeks stuck inside the house, away from the comforting routine of school and sport and a social life.

For some kids, these are difficult memories of the time a year ago when we all retreated into our homes and waited out the beginning of the pandemic.

But the cell phone alerts cutting through an otherwise normal Saturday night a few weeks ago had the potential to bring it all back.

A recent survey from the YMCA found a quarter of parents reported increased anxiety in their children since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, largely due to the disruption and destabilising effect it has had on their lives.

As we move forward into 2021 with the virus still a big player on the world stage, how can parents help their kids to build the emotional resilience they need to thrive despite anxiety?

This last year has been an anxious time for everyone. 

But while many adults have been seeking therapy and other ways to deal with emotional issues, it’s not so easy for the young.

Dr Emma Woodward is an Auckland-based psychologist who deals with anxiety in children. 

According to her, children often lack common tools adults use to deal with anxiety.

“Adults can rationalise,” she said. “But kids often get stuck in the avoidance trap – they totally avoid the source of the anxiety in order to get some short-term relief.”

But this means the children never have the opportunity to overcome the anxiety in order to feel better in the long run.

Not wanting to go to school is the most common symptom of post-lockdown anxiety in kids, Woodward said.

“If they wake up with the tight tummy and racing thoughts, they’ll ask not to go to school. The problem can be parents allowing them to stay home; this can legitimise such thoughts and reinforce the anxiety.”

So what can parents do?

It seems cruel to ignore your kid’s discomfort, but nobody wants to inadvertently make them feel worse.

Luckily, Woodward said there are plenty of ways.

“We need proactive resilience-building strategies,” she said.

Chief among these is emotional literacy.

It can be as simple as making a point of having conversations about your feelings.

“Maybe you feel sad or angry and you know going for a jog or a walk around the block will help. If you explain this to your kids, they can understand from early on that there are ways of dealing with our emotions.”

Demystifying and normalising how we feel can make life more manageable for kids, she said.

For Auckland single mother of three Kelly Hutchison, lockdown presented some unique challenges.

“Three kids at home, eating everything,” she said. “And social media! They would see an ad from McDonald’s and suddenly get the craving.”

She solved this issue by making versions of her kids’ favourite fast food with them at home.

“We made our own Big Macs and KFC. It was mean as, and healthier.”

Hutchison said her children were each affected by the lockdown differently, especially her 15-year-old son who has mild ADHD.

“He lives on routine, so he loves school.”

This made the lockdown an anxiety-inducing time for him.

“It was the not knowing that made it worse.”

Hutchison has found as time has gone on her son’s anxiety has improved.

“Last lockdown was way out of the blue, but he wasn’t as anxious – because now he knows how it works.”

Dr Woodward said making sure children know what to expect is crucial for managing their fear.

Child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward says parents need to show their kids that although the world has changed suddenly, we can still thrive. Photo: Supplied

“They are wonderful observers, but terrible interpreters,” she said.

As regional manager of YMCA North’s extra-curricular program for kids, Kristina Ineson interacts with all kinds of children every day.

She has borne witness to a number of sad stories over the last year.

One anxious young girl took to pulling out her hair, while another refused to leave the house once lockdown was over. 

Ineson said some kids have been withdrawn and struggling to cope.

“Kids pick up on underlying tensions,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be said for them to pick it up.”

She said the anxiety of job losses and income uncertainty amongst parents easily spreads to children.

“Anxious parents make anxious kids.”

Woodward has also seen this in practice.

“It takes a calm brain to calm a brain,” she said. “We need to manage our own anxiety first.”

Physical activity is another vital element for managing anxiety, said Woodward.

The survey from the YMCA showed 43 percent of children got less than an hour of exercise a day in 2020. 

Although sometimes this has been difficult during lockdowns with playgrounds and sports fields closed and families largely consigned to their homes, more than half of Kiwi families surveyed exercised together in lockdown.

Of these, more than half saw a decrease in their kids’ anxiety.

Originally from England, Woodward noted Kiwis are lucky to have a beautiful environment to get out and explore.

“Having an active lifestyle and the space to do it in provides a stress buffer for kids and adults,” she said.

As we tick off the first anniversary of the country-wide lockdown, it’s time to evaluate and consider how we responded to it emotionally.

Woodward sees this as an opportunity.

“It’s a test run for how humanity copes under pressure,” she said. “But we should also use it as a reset button.”

Elevating emotional literacy alongside the core curriculum in schools would be a start, she said.

“Workplaces should be supporting parents more, and putting a focus on their wellbeing.”

As threats to our sense of stability such as climate change and an increased societal expectation for hard work, she said this is important for children as well their parents.

“However we do it, let’s embed wellbeing practices into our daily lives.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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