Teaching kids to stay pandemic-safe without turning them into germophobes is a delicate balance for parents
By Ameeta Vohra
When the pandemic hit, the everyday lives of our children changed immediately and drastically. Schools closed and classrooms became virtual.
Sports teams, clubs, and countless other activities vanished. Public health restrictions ended visits with friends and sleepovers.
Some parents wonder how the changes and rules are affecting children. Are they becoming germophobes and hypochondriacs?
Dr. Laura Rosen, a psychologist and clinical practice leader at the IWK Health Centre, says the team at the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) clinic was expecting more demand for their services.
“At the onset of the pandemic, we saw a drastic decrease in overall demand for treatment,” she says. “That decrease in demand continued throughout the spring and most of the summer. Then, what happened was in the fall, we started to see a bit of an increase back to regular levels of what we would normally expect for our demand that time of year. Through the fall and winter, we’d seen a significant increase again in our demand over and above what we would normally see during those times of the year. It’s really across the board; there doesn’t seem to be any one thing or any few things that we’re seeing more of.”
Additionally, Rosen says that the clinic has seen an increase in contamination-based cases and other types of OCD.
“It’s not that we think it’s the pandemic that’s created a new cohort of these new germophobes, but we’re seeing an increase in all types of OCD across the board as we moved into increased demand across the board for mental health and addictions treatment,” she says.
Rosen believes many factors contributed to the increasing number of cases during fall and winter.
“It was very much a novelty for a while, and we were also entering that first phase of the pandemic as the weather was getting better, it was getting nicer outside, and people were able to spend more time outside,” she says. “When the fall and winter came, we were still in this pandemic state that I think a lot of people at the beginning never thought our restrictions would last as long as they have … I know we’re very lucky in Nova Scotia with what we are able to do, but it’s still different from what we’ve been used to during other times.”
Parents have a big impact on how children feel and act, especially in exceptional circumstances like a pandemic.
“Whether or not they are aware of it, they’re watching and modelling their [parents’] behaviour all the time,” Rosen says. “When kids are coming in from battling anxiety or OCD or the like, often there is a bit of family history. One of the things that we can talk to parents about is trying not to show some symptoms that they may be struggling with to their kids as much as possible, just knowing that your kids are watching and they are going to model your behaviour.”
Rosen urges parents to watch kids of uncharacteristic behaviour.
“A lot of what we see are kids starting to ask a lot of questions about ‘are my hands clean?’” she says. “‘Did I just touch something? Do I need to go wash my hands?’ We’re taking more precautions these days about keeping our hands clean and sanitized, more so than we would have before.”
Complying with public health directives is ideal, but Rosen says parents should watch that kids aren’t going to unnecessary and unhealthy extremes.
Several resources are available. One option is to contact the IWK Health Centre to schedule an appointment to speak with a mental health professional.
“When we work with children and families in treatment, part of what the treatment for anxiety and OCD is reducing some of that reassurance and the accommodation that parents are often asked to do when their kids are reaching out because they’re worried about something,” Rosen says. “The idea behind the treatment is for kids to handle that distress that comes with the uncertainty of what the world is like. Everything is uncertain. It’s being able to feel more comfortable with that uncertainty.”
Rosen recommends books like What To Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck and What To Do When You Worry So Much. Both books are by Dawn Huebner, a parent coach who has written 10 self-help books for kids. dawnhuebnerphd.com
Talking Back to OCD by John March and Christine Benton is another acclaimed self-help book, offering a practical eight-step program to help kids manage OCD. Find it on Amazon.
Anxiety Canada is a national charity aiming to share practical, evidence-based self-help resources. Find information and the free MindShift app on its website. anxietycanada.com.