Dangers of COVID Fear Signaling in Kids, How to Stop Today
I took this picture of my daughter a few weeks ago as she prepared to return to school, physically. Her excitement was infectious as I took the ‘first day back to school picture’. She was thrilled to see her friends and I was relieved that our life took a giant step towards normalcy. It made me reflect on the kids who are not going back to school in person. Even those that are physically going back to school, many are afraid. It makes me sad that our COVID fear signaling has robbed kids of these pure, joyful moments.
COVID Fear Signaling
Fear signaling is when certain images or words trigger a conscious or subconscious fear reaction. These fear reactions can’t always be seen, and if persistent enough can manifest into anxiety. Basically, all of these daily reminders to wear masks, wash hands, distance from people and douse ourselves in hand sanitizer are triggers.
Many adults falsy believe that these experiences are temporary for kids and they can just ‘go back to normal’ after this crisis passes. Unfortunately, that’s not how child development works. These kiddos are developing their sense of self and the world around them in real-time. The effects of these experiences can be lasting just like all childhood experiences.
Impact of Fear Signaling
As I travel the country for work, I’m seeing more insecure, scared, socially reluctant children. Children hiding behind masks, clinging to parents, and backing away from people to maintain ‘social distance’. While this may seem like responsible behavior to some, as a former teacher and mother, these behaviors resemble worrisome expressions of fear and anxiety.
Constant reminders about germs, masks, and social distance are tiny fear signals throughout the day. Some are visual such as masks and tape on the floors. Other signals are verbal reminders to remember masks, stand back, wash hands and not touch anything.
These signals create anxiety in many children, reminding them repeatedly that the world isn’t safe. These signals can create stress and anxiety, which are already a growing problem in children and adolescents.
In chronically stressed or anxious children, the brain’s fear center sends signals to the decision-making part of the brain that makes it harder to regulate negative emotions, according to new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine.https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/04/stanford-study-finds-stronger-one-way-fear-signals-in-brains-of-.html
During these formidable years, I worry that this COVID fear signaling behavior will trickle into how they interact with their world long term. It’s challenging enough to convince kiddos to stand tall, make eye contact, and address adults, without masks and six feet distance.
How to Stop Fear Signaling
I remember a sitcom where the daughter had to write an essay for a college application. The topic was, “Describe a time when you had to overcome something”. Unable to think of a time she had experienced true hardship, the daughter complained to her mother that she had failed her by making her life so easy that she had nothing to write about. The daughter went on to complain that it was the mother’s fault she had become a painfully uninteresting person.
The mother responded by taking her on a drive down a long dirt road, tricking her into getting out of the car, then driving off while yelling out the window… “you’re welcome, now you’ll have something to write about.”
The paradox of parenthood is that by attempting to provide a better life for your kids you could actually stifle them and in this fictional example, create an ‘unbearable boring child’. I’ve often said that a little hardship goes a long way in building character. By most measures, our kiddos live a pretty cushioned life these days.
Our over-mothering and protection from this ‘pandemic’ is just another way we might be overdoing it. We may need to reframe this for our kiddos as something difficult that they will experience as part of their childhood but not something they should ‘fear’ or give away their power to.
Germs aren’t Scary
As a kindergarten teacher new parents would often ask me how to foster confidence in their kids. One of the biggest fears of parents dropping off their kindergartner is them being bullied. They wanted some reassurance that their sweet little angles could survive in the real world of public school.
I would tell them that the best way to create a confident, resilient child was to let them fail, let them fall off the swing, let them struggle to tie their shoes, opening their lunch, basically, let them struggle and make mistakes often. I also told them that’s what I planned to do as their teacher… which shocked a few parents.
The simple fact is, you can’t move fearlessly through life challenges without the confidence that picking yourself up after a failure gives you. Without taking risks and experiencing defeat kids are hesitant to take risks. They make decisions primarily based on the circumstances surrounding the decision, rather than confidence in their abilities.
Every decision we made in the classroom was based on building confidence and the love of school, which is the greatest determinant of success in that environment.
We were no more afraid of germs than we were reading, a rainy recess, or learning to count.Kindergarten Memories
The kiddos who went to preschool had developed some immunity and didn’t get sick as often. Kiddos who were coming to a school environment for the first time got sick often in the first few months.
I told parents to plan for that and understand that ultimately it’s a healthy adaptation as their untrained immune systems developed the intelligence to fight common pathogens. Knowing what to expect, no one was afraid or fearful of that process. COVID fear signaling would be in direct conflict with those lessons.
Reframe Wearing Masks
I personally wear a mask and advise my kids to wear one primarily to avoid conflict. That said, the message about WHY we’re wearing a mask is critically important to me. This is how I explain it…
We’re wearing masks because it makes other people feel more comfortable. It also helps us prevent conflict and arguments from people who are really scared right now. Our bodies are healthy and strong, but some people who aren’t healthy and strong are afraid of these germs because they’re not sure they can fight them off. They should work on becoming healthier and stronger.Our Truth
In my house, we don’t wear masks because we’re scared of contracting COVID. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s an important nuance. We don’t foster a fear of an illness that has a 99% survival rate.
I believe strongly that we need to instill a sense of self-determination that’s actionable. Kids should be thinking about being healthy and strong, not hiding from COVID or the flu or other germs that they will eventually encounter. The COVID fear signaling we’re doing dozens of times throughout the day takes an emotional toll… it also takes a toll on our long term immunity.
Embrace Herd Immunity
One of the real consequences of all these precautions is unintentionally weakening our immune system. By preventing exposure to everyday germs, our immune systems aren’t getting the exposure they need to maintain and build immunity.
It’s like bracing a weak joint. While the brace is supporting the ankle, the supporting muscles become weak. After removing the brace you either have a weakened ankle that always required bracing or taping, or weeks or months of therapy to restore the strength. Our immune systems need regular interaction with the environment to stay strong.
Dave Asprey from Bulletproof recently shared his thoughts on the unintended consequences of social distancing and masks and I couldn’t agree more.
Scary new data from prisons, homeless shelters, and meatpacking plants, where between 88% and 96% of people with the virus had no symptoms shows that the rest of us may be basically screwed.
Why are they so much stronger than average? In the US, only 40% of average people have no symptoms.
The reason is adaptive immunity. When your body is constantly exposed to bacteria, viruses, and other microbes, your immune system gets stronger.
It’s why experienced ER docs don’t get sick as often as new docs, and why frequent flyers don’t get sick when they fly compared to occasional flyers. The people in these data sets get lots of germs so their immune systems already know how to handle similar coronaviruses.
The reason this matters to you is that all this social distancing and hand sanitizer is depriving your immune system of almost all the environmental microbes that are required to keep you strong.
Regularly exposing yourself to low doses of other people’s bacteria is the immune system equivalent of mild exercise every day for your cardiovascular system.
When things finally “open up” and we stop submerging ourselves in vats if toxic hand sanitizer, your immune system is going to be *way* out of shape. And you’re going to pick up every cold and flu for a while until you get strong again, with far worse environmental allergies.
The longer we wait, the weaker your immune system gets.https://www.instagram.com/p/CDp5NjFHgKI/
Use Real Soap & Water
I’ll add to that concern the impact of hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps on our immune system. Let’s start with antibacterial soaps which may actually INCREASE the risk of chronic disease.
Repeated use of popular antibacterial soaps on children might actually contribute to the development of chronic diseases, according to Tufts University microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy, who spoke today at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.
The ingredients in soaps and cleansers intended to fight bacteria could promote the growth of drug-resistant “superbugs” that might otherwise be kept in check with little more than a vigorous scrub, Levy says.https://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=118140&page=1
Hand sanitizer is another questionable product, especially right now. I wasn’t a fan before this epidictic, partially because I lived a healthy childhood without it. Probably because we played outside, in the dirt, and never worried about germs. I’ve never been a fan of chemical concoctions rubbed into the largest organ on our bodies, our skin.
Recently there’s even more cause for concern than my common sense fears. With the epidemic there’s been a shortage of hand sanitizer that caused production of unsafe products to flood the market. See the ever growing list of ‘toxic’ hand sanitizers from the FDA.
Even more shocking is that regular (not antibacterial) soap and water is still the best method to clean hands. We’d be better off reminding kiddos not to touch their face and teaching them to wash their hands properly than pumping questionable chemicals in their little hands.
Stop Social Isolation
My biggest concern in all of this, even after the lack of confidence, chemicals, and fear we’re creating… are the dangers of social isolation. We are social creatures and removing social interaction has always been considered a punishment, whether it’s a time out for a toddler, isolation for a prisoner, or silent lunch.
In this social distancing, cancel culture we’re removing one of the most important elements of healthy childhood development… social development. If you’ve ever watched recess at school you’ll see the value in kids learning to interact in healthy ways with each other.
Whether it’s negotiating the rules of a made-up game, confronting another student about some perceived affront, or waiting in line to go down the slide. I’ve seen punches thrown, tears shed and sweet loving friendships blossom on playgrounds.
Interactions with family, grandparents, and friends have been limited. Neighbors don’t play together and sports are canceled.
These are not novelties in childhood. Social interactions with peers, family, adults, church, coaches… it all plays a role in appropriate social development.https://www.all4kids.org/news/blog/social-connection-on-child-development/
Kids need to interact with each other in structured and non-structured ways. They need to interact with people of authority like teachers and coaches outside their family unit. They need planned and unplanned interactions with new people to learn how to navigate the world.
We all assumed we would be locked down for a month or so. I agree that before we knew better, it was a reasonable risk to socially isolate our kiddos for a short time. Seven months in, it’s no longer a reasonable compromise. Social development deficits can have lasting effects.
Take Metabolic Fitness Seriously
Those who retreat in fear and try to hide from the virus are teaching that behavior. My concern is that reaction undermines their confidence in themselves and their health. If you are truly concerned about your family’s health, obesity and metabolic dysfunction are your worst enemies.
Not only are outcomes worse for obese people who contract COVID, it’s very likely the vaccine developed won’t be as effective if you’re overweight.https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/08/07/obesity-vaccine
While most of my resources are written with adults in mind, the same workout and eating principals are relevant for the entire family. As always, I’m just a message away to help you think through this. No matter what changes you can or cannot make, you can certainly stop the COVID fear signaling you may not have even realized was impacting your kiddos.
Take Back Your Power
While recent events have put parents in an interesting position, the truth is, none of us really know the truth about the COVID virus. Unfortunately, as humans, we don’t deal well with uncertainty. It creates a cognitive dissonance that’s very uncomfortable for us. We much prefer evaluating options and developing an opinion…. so that we don’t have to wade through conflicting information every day.
The uncertainty has created a very polarized environment. COVID fear signaling in the media has trickled down into the basic fabric of our families. People who are normally quite reasonable have become militant about their position regarding masks, social distancing, and other precautions. Families are divided… some quarantining for months on end while other family members resist wearing masks and go on with normal lives.
Regardless of your position on the issue before now, I encourage you to spend whatever emotional bandwidth you have left to protect childhood and all its wonder. Every experience a child has teaches them something about their world and how they should interact with it.
The way we frame the current situation to them is critically important to raising confident, resilient, and responsible adults. Think about the signals you’re sending about what is in their control.
Thankfully two weeks into school have proven it was not only the right choice but the fearless choice. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my position on the dangers of COVID fear signaling, but that’s ok. I don’t take the same approach to fear as everyone else in normal times. My reaction to this whole COVID experience is no exception.