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4 Ways to Help Kids Who Are Afraid to Go Outside During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Stay home. Stop the spread. Flatten the curve.

These are phrases you and your family have heard on the news or seen on social media for the past several weeks. While we are practicing social distancing, wearing masks in public, and following other health guidelines to keep ourselves and others safe, your children may be feeling a sense of dread or fear when they leave your home.

Of course, getting a breath of fresh air and taking part in solitary physical activities are acceptable and even encouraged during this time. So what do you do if your child is afraid to go outside? Here are some steps you can take to help your child overcome their fear.

1. Address the source of the fear.

One reason your child may be scared is that they equate “home” with their physical shelter — the place they eat, play, and sleep. Furthermore, they may believe they are “breaking the rules” by going outside at any time for any reason.

This strong sense of right and wrong develops in children when they are very young. Learning to follow rules provides them with a framework for behavior in the real world, teaches socialization skills, and provides a sense of order, which children crave. Dr. Marianne Neifert, a pediatrician and author, says, “Even little children tend to cooperate better when they know what’s required of them, and that helps them gain a sense of belonging.”

As such, when a child ignores or struggles to follow rules, they sense their parent’s displeasure and don’t experience the “feel-good” endorphins they normally would when they do follow the rules. While most children will just follow the rules to avoid those negative feelings, other children develop a fear of breaking them. As a result, when their parents tell them it’s time to go outside, they feel conflicted and scared.

If your child is having difficulty overcoming this fear, tell them in simple language that going outside is safe if they are not in a crowded area and if they are with their family. You can also remind your child that time outdoors is healthy, even if it is only for a few minutes each day.

2. Develop a game plan to overcome the fear.

If a conversation is not enough, having patience and taking the time to come up with the right approach to conquer their fear of the outside world is key.

Mindfulness strategies, which encourage the acknowledgment of feelings as they come and then letting them go, are helpful tools for coping with stress and anxiety. If your child is having difficulty identifying their emotions, cut out various pictures of your child’s favorite book or television character exhibiting different emotions, and then have the child match the picture to an emotion. Once your child can identify those emotions, they can let go of their own negative feelings using a visual strategy. For example, you can have your child mime crumpling their negative feelings into a ball and throwing them into the trash as they verbalize they are “letting anger go” or “letting grumpiness go.”

Another useful tool is diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is a good way to reduce negative feelings and stress and increase feelings of comfort and calmness. This can be accomplished by pairing a visual or auditory cue with slow breathing. For instance, you can use a beaded rainstick and have your child breathe in when they see and hear the beads falling and then breathe out when the rainstick is flipped.

In pediatric therapy, we often use a systematic approach to help a child achieve a large goal by breaking the process down into smaller steps that are more easily achieved. This approach is especially effective for helping a child overcome fear and anxiety, as it honors their feelings of fear and encourages them to move forward with increasingly difficult challenges only when they feel comfortable enough to do so.

If you decide to use a systematic approach with your child, establishing clear visual boundaries in an outdoor environment is a good first step. You can use bright tape or cones in your front or back yard, so your child knows they will not have to leave that specific area. Setting a blanket or towel on the ground also offers your child a safe place to sit and play in the outdoors. If possible, offer them a goal-directed activity like walking to the mailbox or taking sidewalk chalk and drawing a picture of their family surrounded by a large heart. While small steps, these are small wins along the way that will help your child overcome their fear and move closer to their ultimate goal of overcoming their fear of being outside.

If your child is hesitant to stay outdoors for a substantial amount of time, start by going outside for only five minutes. The next day, increase the time to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, and so on. On a specific day, perhaps a Saturday or a Sunday, let your child pick a special activity they can enjoy with family outside like a picnic, relay race, or scavenger hunt. Set a timer, so your child knows there’s a specific start and finish for the activity, and they don’t perceive it as an unknown.

3. Take action, but be mindful of your child’s anxiety.

As your child’s comfort level improves, then the activities can go on for longer amounts of time and advance to more elaborate activities, such as building obstacle courses, playing hopscotch together or gathering leaves and flowers in the yard.

However, if your child’s fear persists and they are showing signs of increased anxiety and refuse to go outdoors, don’t force them. Start by simply opening the windows throughout your home and letting some fresh air inside. It may take some time, but your child will steadily adjust.

4. Be patient.

As you and your child adjust to new daily routines and activities, remember to be patient both with your child and yourself. When you take time for your own self-care, you can demonstrate to your child how important it is and what you’re doing to handle your own anxiety. If you or your children are feeling overwhelmed, pick an activity from your “self-care menu” such as reading, meditating, petting the dog, exercising, dancing, singing, and playing music that makes your family feel calm. Remember, you are the best role model for your child and by remaining grounded and intact, you’re setting your child up for success long after the pandemic has passed.

For more on parenting during quarantine, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Marina Borovskaya.