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Opinion: This Halloween, help children not to fear COVID-19

Hilary Marusak

This Halloween, there’s a new boogeyman in town — the novel coronavirus.

Science tells us that children’s brains are hardwired for fear, and that’s a good thing because fear can help prevent future harm. However, when it becomes excessive, fear can have harmful effects, such as impairing one’s ability to learn and interact with others. Excessive fear can also increase risk of developing an anxiety disorder, which affects nearly 1 in 3 people at some point during their lifetime.

Like we show kids decorations on a spooky house aren’t real, we must address fear of COVID-19 head-on, Marusak writes.

It is normal for children to experience fear, including COVID-related anxieties such as getting the virus, falling behind in school and the well-being of their family. However, just like we hold a child’s hand on Halloween and show them that decorations on a spooky house aren’t real, we must address fear of COVID-19 head-on.

Fear of the dark, monsters or strangers are normal aspects of development that children typically outgrow. The ability to regulate fear develops over the first two decades of life. Fear regulation occurs in a brain region called the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the last brain regions to mature. You can think of the prefrontal cortex like the brake in the car that tells your amygdala — the brain’s fear center — to not be afraid. The ability to put the brakes on and regulate fear is not well developed in children, leaving them susceptible to excessive fear and anxiety.

Because of that susceptibility, as a developmental neuroscientist, I am concerned about the mental health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Children are not as good at communicating their feelings as adults, and many are suffering in silence. Left unchecked, excessive fear and anxiety can cause children’s brains and bodies to be primed to see the world as a threatening place and set the stage for chronic mental health problems throughout their lives.

The few research studies on the subject tell us that children are afraid of COVID-19, and the pandemic has worsened already-existing mental health problems. Part of what makes COVID-19 scary are the uncertainties. We can’t see it, and we don’t know how long it will last or how to totally protect ourselves. Fear also becomes stronger when the threat is more relevant. This means that children who live in communities that have been hit hard by the pandemic — like Detroit — may be more vulnerable.

So how do we protect our children? First, adults should acknowledge that it is normal to experience fear. Then, turn uncertainty about COVID-19 into certainty by explaining what we know and what we don’t about the virus. Reminding our children that we walk with them during these uncertain times and pointing out that what looks like a monster might just be a shadow can help alleviate some of their anxieties.  

Hilary Marusak, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at Wayne State University.