Grade 11 student Yanni Troncoso's biggest fear has been that someone at her school will become infected with COVID-19 and the virus would spread quickly, sickening her and her friends.

"I was not really worried when it was still in China and then it started to go to all the other countries, and Canada," she said.

Troncoso, 16, is an international student from Cancun, Mexico, and said she's in regular contact with her parents, who told her early on to follow all precautions, including washing her hands and maintaining her distance from people to keep herself and others safe.

She said her family is confident that Canada is a safe country where she should finish her education in June, but Troncoso is worried about disruptions to her schooling after spring break and when life will return to regular routines.

"It could take weeks and months," she said, adding she's getting plenty of support from her host family in Delta, B.C.

She said she approached them when she saw social media posts about a cure for COVID-19 and wondered if it could be true, learning that was not the case and she should try to carry on as normally as possible.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia's provincial health officer, said anxiety has increased generally over the pandemic, the same as it did in China as cases start to ramp up there, but it's important to strengthen relationships when fear can be overwhelming.

"We know that there's a lot of anxiety and I hear it from young people in my life about what's going to happen," she said, adding there is a low risk of children contracting the virus.

Carlton Duff, a psychologist in Victoria, B.C., said practising how to tolerate anxiety could be an upside to the upheaval during the pandemic, especially for teens stuck on "what-if" scenarios.

He said learning to get through uncertainty means being exposed to it, without parents immediately jumping in to reassure teens they shouldn't worry, which may convey that anxiety in the midst of so many unknowns is unreasonable.

"It doesn't actually say 'You're right, this is kind of risky but we can get through this together,'" Duff said.

"When parents have these conversations, (teens) can actually sit with these anxious feelings that come from thinking about how lousy the situation is. It also provides an opportunity for families to talk about the facts of what's actually happening," Duff said, adding the current challenges are giving everyone a chance to recognize their own resilience.

Teens who have withdrawn into themselves or their social circle would have more difficulty trying to make sense of what they may be reading online about the virus, especially if they typically don't discuss much with their parents, he said.

"Now, when it's tough to communicate, parents can actually use this time if they're stranded at home with their kids as an opportunity to start increasing communication."

Parents should be limiting the time teens spend online reading about the state of the world in the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks, instead sharing how taking precautions such as washing hands and not hanging out in groups can help bring down the number of cases, Duff said.

Robin Simpson, a mental health educator for the Canadian Mental Health Association at schools in the York and South Simcoe regions of Ontario, said teens who typically get psychological support at school may be most at risk of isolating themselves during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"The teen may be in their room the entire time or they're just isolating themselves to a specific task like 'I'm going to watch the news over and over again or I'm going to be on social media looking over and over again at what is being posted across platforms.'"

Parents should be mindful of teens fearing they won't graduate, contract the virus or worry about how bad it can get. Instead, parents should help them focus on the present, not what may happen in the days or weeks ahead, she said.

Highlighting teens' strengths, by giving them a leadership role in cooking meals, for example, could also divert attention from anxiety over the pandemic, she said.

"That can really help give them back a sense of control."

This report by The Canadian Press was published March 20, 2020.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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