Living in an unprecedented set of circumstances, it is understandable that we are all experiencing some level of anxiety around COVID-19. As parents, we are likely navigating our own concerns about elderly relatives in higher-risk groups and how to best support our children through their questions and fears.
As a wellness service promoting anxiety education for kids and parents, one of our wellness educators, Tracy Nemecek, offers the following suggestions:
Acknowledge and do your best to meet your own needs.
To best support our families, we need to take care of ourselves. It is normal and appropriate for us as parents to have our own worries, both rational and not-so-rational. Give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, rather than distancing yourself from your emotions. Vent with your peers/other adults, out of earshot of your children. Maintain good self-care practices including activities that you find relaxing. Set reasonable limits on your daily news intake.
Allow your children the opportunity to be heard.
In our movement toward attempting to reduce our children’s pain as quickly as possible, we may be inclined to respond to their fears with facts and reassurance. First, however, it is essential to let them have their feelings, whatever they may be, and truly hear them as they are conveyed. Otherwise, we send a message that our children are wrong to feel what they feel. Using empathy and active listening, we can respond in ways that let our children feel understood and validated. “It sounds like you are feeling really scared about…”, “I know, it is really disappointing when…”, “It is so sad to think about…”. They will, on their own, or with your help, move on from difficult feelings, but they shouldn’t be talked out of them too soon.
Offer age-appropriate communication.
In an effort to be honest, we may over-educate our children about the coronavirus. Be sure to present facts, don’t offer false information or make promises you can’t keep, and let your children’s questions guide your discussions. If a child’s peer group is a primary source of information, your job is likely to involve the dispelling of rumors and misinformation. Ask your children what they are hearing, and how they are interpreting that information. Clear up any misunderstandings or straight-up untruths, remembering that less is often more.
Attempt to master the conundrum that children need consistency.
In an ever-changing, unpredictable situation, consistency may at many times be next to impossible to offer. But have discussions about what hasn’t changed. Emphasize big things such as your family’s love for one another, your willingness to do everything in your power to give your children what they need, and that fact that the world is an interconnected web of existence. And note smaller ones such as their continued access to favorite stuffed animals, toys, and other sources of comfort. Along these lines, work together to create some semblance of a schedule or routine. Hygiene, eating, schoolwork, playtime and bedtime can all offer opportunities for predictability, even if old routines may need to be altered a bit to accommodate time off from school.
Create opportunities for your children to experience control and agency.
When life circumstances feel out of control, it is essential to take control where we can, even if only in seemingly-small ways. While there is so much that leaves us feeling powerless, we can identify ways to empower ourselves. Assist your child with creating or maintaining organization of their belongings. We can offer children who feel stripped of their freedoms to have flexibility in their choices. When possible, present a small number of parent-approved options and allow your child to choose the activity, or the order of activities for the day. If you need help reorganizing the space in a freezer or pantry as you stock up on staples, ask your child for their assistance. Phrasing such as “Organizing these kitchen cabinets is going to be a big job for me; I could really use your help” can emphasize the message that your child is an essential part of the household team. This can have more impact on empowerment than we may realize. Remind your children that we also have some control over our responses to challenging events. Work together to identify ways to respond with balance and resilience. (See the next two bullet points for some ideas.)
Be sure to make space for distractions.
Sitting in worried thoughts will only amp up our fight/flight/freeze response. Giving your children (and yourself!) something else to think about for a while can go a long way toward establishing balance in our moods. Create playlists of music, and have a dance party. Create another playlist of tunes to relax to together. Pull out board games, card games, old photos, and craft supplies. Set up virtual playdates via Skype or FaceTime. Allow for some entertainment-based screen time, using the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx) and Commonsense Media (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/). Encourage creativity, your own and theirs.
Review—or teach for the first time—relaxation strategies.
When anxious emotions strike, we can all benefit from responding to our physiological responses such as heart rate increases, rapid breathing, or upset stomachs by learning methods to physically calm our bodies. A relaxed body cannot coexist with an anxious mind, so learn or re-learn some strategies that can help the body, and thereby the mind, to relax: meditation (https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/loving_kindness_meditation), deep breathing (https://copingskillsforkids.com/deep-breathing-exercises-for-kids), mindfulness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIJn5XhqPN8 ), and progressive muscle relaxation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDKyRpW-Yuc).
Remember that no one is going through this alone. Check back at www.physiologicswellness.com regularly for more ideas, links, and online opportunities to understand and manage anxiety.