Quarantine is affecting everyone differently, but children seem to be particularly vulnerable. They are being forced to reckon with these big feelings they don't understand, and some enormous life changes. Some kids might burrow where it's comfortable and still have an interest in getting out, but what should you do if your child is afraid to leave the house? Everyone in masks, people staying far apart from each other, restaurants and stores closed up — of course it looks and feels scary.
The Guardian reported that up to a fifth of children are afraid to leave the house during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. To these children, home represents safety and security that they fear that the outside world no longer holds for them. Where they were once carefree, and nearly fearless, they are now struggling under the weight of uncertainty and unseen enemies. Licensed professional counselor Natalie Mica tells Romper that the first thing that parents should do is examine their own reactions to the quarantine. Children often mirror their parents, and this can have a profound effect on how children process current events. "Children pick up on adult fears, and they look to them for cues about how to feel and respond. Parents can model the behaviors they want to see in their children."
This is certainly the case in my own home. I am a worrier. Technically, I am quite a bit more than that — I have obsessive compulsive disorder with fixation and extreme anxiety. I try not to let it bleed into my everyday interactions with my children, but I fear that it has. My son is 12 years old, autistic, and he has not left the house at all since March 20. A part of that is because we live in New York City, and safe social distancing is nearly impossible all the time, but another part of that I know is his own fears about COVID-19. I don't know how much of that has rubbed off from me, and how much of it is from his own interest in the news and Governor Cuomo's daily press briefings, but it's becoming apparent that he's afraid to go outside — even under controlled circumstances.
Mica suggests that you discuss these fears with your child, and talk to them about fear and courage. She says that while most people think these are mutually exclusive, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Explaining to your child that they can feel real fear, and still show courage to do what is scary, is actually possible.
And that's not the only way through this. Psychiatrist Jared Heathman tells Romper that what you should do if your child is afraid to leave the house right now is look at different approaches. He says that there are ways to overcome this fear for children that go beyond the cerebral approach. "When children develop an unreasonable fear, a frequently used counseling technique is graduated exposure therapy," Heathman says. This is a gradual exposure to the thing that frightens them. My own therapist used exposure therapy with me as a method to get beyond my staggering fear of heights and stairs. While I'm still not perfect, it did work pretty well.
"Day one may involve talking about the outside and imagining it," he suggests. Moving on from there, "when [your child is] comfortable with imagining it, transitioning to play in the garage is a reasonable step." Make it fun. Do what you can to get their mind off of what's happening in the outside world. Because Heathman finds that "with additional gradual steps, it becomes easier for the child to rationalize that the outside isn't as terrible as previously imagined."
However, none of these methods are perfect, and they might not work for every child. If your child is really struggling, a talk with a therapist might be in order. Fortunately, most of them are doing telehealth right now, so your child can do it from the comfort of their own home.
Natalie Mica, MEd, LPC, CART, CDWF, licensed professional counselor
Jared Heathman, MD, board-certified in child and adolescent psychiatry