You May Need To Mask Your Face But You Don’t Need To Mask Your Worries: Simple Ways of Helping Your Family Navigate Anxiety Amidst COVID-19
‘Anxiety’ can be an intimidating concept, but the truth is we all experience anxious symptoms at various points throughout our lifetime. It’s no surprise that many people are experiencing anxiousness, or heightened symptoms of ongoing anxiety, during this global pandemic. This can be scary for both people who are new to these different feelings and people who fear their symptoms may start to get out of control. There is no magic wand to make anxiety (or the global pandemic) disappear, but there are plenty of simple things you can do to manage your symptoms and help your family through this tough time.
1. Practice mindfulness.
Anxiety can exist both in our heads and in our bodies. We may notice that our brains ‘jump to conclusions’ and think of the worst possible outcome in situations or worry about things we have no control over. It’s helpful to pause and pay attention to our thoughts to determine whether or not they are something worth listening to. Of course, there are plenty of things worthy of worry right now, but if you’re noticing yourself worrying about things you cannot control or always assuming the worst, basic practices in mindfulness can help.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to involve yoga poses, chakra balancing music and lengthy periods of meditation (unless you want it to!). It can be as simple as interrupting your less than helpful thought by saying “_____ is not happening in this moment. I’m home and I’m safe and I have no evidence to support that theory.” In a nutshell, mindfulness encompasses the following:
The more we are able to identify what we are thinking and feelings and “get it out,” the less likely things are going to bottle up and get to a point of being unmanageable. Bouncing ideas off of others can help neutralize thoughts that are getting out of control by adding an external perspective. A significant other, trusted friend or therapist can help offer validation and remind us to be kind to ourselves. Additionally, modeling this for children or adolescents in your home helps them learn to express and navigate their emotional world as well.
Looking for an age appropriate way to talk to younger children about the pandemic? “The Stay Home Superheroes” written by Sophie Marsh is a free, electronic book created to empower children and the role they play in keeping themselves and others safe and healthy. You can read the full story here.
Our bodies do a great job giving us information about our mental and emotional state. Racing heartbeats, shortness of breath and nausea are all examples of ways our bodies indicate to us that we have some anxiety to manage. Evolutionarily, humans developed really great coping mechanisms to let us know when we are in danger, known to many as “fight or flight” responses. The problem is, we still experience these primal somatic reactions even when immediate danger is not present. Therefore, the simple thought of touching a grocery cart handle can cause us to enter this reactive somatic state. The easiest and quickest way to tell your brain to tell your body to calm down is to utilize deep belly breathing. You can use this tactic no matter where you are and no one will even notice you’re doing it! Breathe in through your nose and be sure you feel your belly rise, rather than your chest.
Looking for a fun way to teach younger children how to do the same? Have them lie on their backs on a flat surface and place their favorite stuffed animal on their stomach. Challenge them to make ____ (insert favorite stuffed animal’s name here) go up and down with their breath without falling off, which means they have to do it really slow. Add counting to the mix, which not only helps with number literacy but also ensures they belly breathe long enough for it to be effective. (Start small if this is a new skill or if the child is really young and have them work on stamina over time.) You can make a fun challenge out of it with multiple family members and see who can keep a stuffed animal on their stomach the longest. If you choose to join your child/children in the activity, you also benefit from anxiety reduction and get some bonding time in.
4. Be kind to yourself and know that we all handle stress differently.
Everyone is living in a time of uncertainty, everyone has had some sort of disruption to their norm and this is all of our first experience with this. No one is managing it perfectly or knows exactly how everything is going to play out. Paying attention to your needs and knowing the most effective coping mechanisms for yourself is going to be key. Some people are going to get engrossed in a new fitness routine, some are going to enjoy a new baking routine, some will do both. Some people will want to get out and walk in nature and some will want to Netflix and chill. Some people are desperate for social interaction whereas others welcome the reprieve. Know yourself and what works best for you, and try not to compare yourself to what others are doing (or what they say they’re doing via Facebook).
There are many different ways to manage anxious feelings: these are just the most simple and universally applicable. Mental health is considered an essential service and most therapists are offering video counseling services so please reach out if you would like additional support.
Spending some extra time with your children lately? With schools closed and daycares restricted in addition to many parents working from home, family time is a 24/7 endeavor. This can be an opportunity for reconnection and spending quality time with one another. This can also be a time when stress is heightened, feelings are big and patience is low.
Whether you’re dealing with everyday toddler tantrums, children with behavioral challenges as a result of being away from their structured routine, or children dealing with real fear and anxiety during this time of uncertainty, how you respond can have a significant impact on their ability to cope and how peacefully you continue to share space together at home.
In order to illustrate a very important point about responding to your child’s big feelings, I am going to open with a common dialogue from my parenting presentations:
Me to a group of parents: “Have you ever been upset about something and had someone tell you that you were… overreacting?”
Parents: (some laughter, lots of nodding, some eye rolling) “Yes!!!”
Me: “Does that usually go over well?”
Parents: (universal agreement) “No!!!”
Me: “So that’s exactly what you’re doing to your child when you ignore their expression of feelings or tell them to calm down.”
Insert mic drop here.
Children are people, just as much as adults, and just because we may not get upset by the same things they do doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to be upset. If your friend or significant other came to you to upset, wouldn’t you try your best to respond with empathy and understanding? Why has society deemed it “okay” to treat children differently?
Your child is not out to get you (even though it may feel that way sometimes). They have a huge, new world to explore, they are experiencing a wide array of emotions they haven’t been taught how to process yet, and are in the very important process of figuring out if they can trust you and the environment around them. These are all typical milestones found throughout childhood that are only heightened by current events surrounding this global pandemic. Understanding this is important for your child’s development and also creates less stress and burnout for parents. What is best for your children and what is best for you as a parent are not conflicting ideologies.
Behavior is communication, and children (people!) need to feel heard and understood before any learning can take place. This is the basis for secure attachment: it is only when a safe, secure relationship is intact can parental guidance have any influence. Part of a safe relationship involves emotional safety and knowing that feelings are understood, accepted and will be acknowledged rather than being met with dismissal or shame.
So, that’s a theoretical overview, but what does any of this have to do with meltdowns and other ways kids express big feelings? There seems to be this popular belief that a child having feelings is “bad”, manipulative or trying to get attention - but the truth of the matter is that if a child has escalated to the point of a meltdown they are operating within a reactive part of their brain and are incapable of accessing reasoning skills in these moments. Think of a soda (or beer) can exploding after it has been shaken: there’s no stopping the explosion once the liquid is on its way out. It’s either happening or it’s not. Therefore, trying to reason with your child during the time the “explosion” is taking place is going to be an ineffective strategy.
Some parents choose to punish their children for having tantrums or meltdowns. Having feelings is not wrong: we all have them. It’s a part of being human. Teaching a child to suppress their emotions can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms later in life, health issues and a lack of empathy for others (therefore continuing the cycle).
Finally, as we mentioned before, ignoring a child’s feelings can actually cause more emotional distress. Again, children (people!) need to feel heard, not ignored.
So where does that leave us with ways we can manage and respond to our children and help them through this difficult time?
Just like we might not be our best selves if we haven’t gotten enough sleep, have been stuck inside without much physical activity or are feeling ‘hangry’ – staying on top of our children’s basic physical needs is one great way to be proactive about meltdown prevention. While this isn’t the omnipotent magic wand, it is a strategy that has a huge impact on distress tolerance. Social distancing has created some additional challenges in this area, but there are definitely creative ways we can work within current limitations to ensure our children are getting these needs met as best as possible.
Additionally, once we have learned about some common causes for meltdowns we can proactively try to avoid them. For example, my son really enjoys bath time or playing in the pool and can get upset if transitioning from these enjoyable activities abruptly. I don’t blame him: who likes to stop doing something they really enjoy? Alas, we do have to eventually move on to the next activity. While we try to plan for allowing ample time for these enjoyable activities, we have also found that it’s incredibly helpful to offer a friendly countdown to let my son know that bath time/swim time is coming to an end soon. Even if it’s as simple as a countdown from ten (said in a friendly rather than punitive tone) it allows him to know a transition is coming and use those last moments to fill his need for water play to the best of his ability. This works well for our son, so it may be something you can implement in your home as well.
Just like we teach children the alphabet and how to tie their shoes, it is our job as parents to be their first teachers in the awareness, control and expression of emotions. Teaching emotional awareness is another way parents can help their children move beyond the stage of meltdowns. And, what better time to teach some new skills than now when we’re home and probably have examples of a variety of emotions flowing through the house?
There are many ways parents can teach emotional intelligence. Some ideas include modeling, focusing on socio-emotional development by utilizing feelings charts and literature, and communicating values on behavior. Let’s break these strategies down more specifically.
Remember that old saying “actions speak louder than words?” Well, in general, it’s true. Our behavior is one of the most powerful teachers in our children’s lives. So, how are we displaying and handling our own emotions in front of them? If we’re feeling frustrated do we get out and go for a walk or allow ourselves to get to the point of blowing up? If we’re starting to feel angry with our significant other do we try to speak with them calmly and proactively or do we allow things to escalate to the point of yelling or refusing to communicate/cooperate? Our children are watching and absorbing all of this.
When we help children learn to recognize and name their emotions they become more aware of these feelings in themselves and in others. The first step in developing emotional intelligence is having language to describe feelings and this will begin to decrease the likelihood of less desirable expressions of emotion.
Also, just like we wouldn’t expect a child to know how to solve a math problem without teaching them the process first, we can’t expect them to know how to behave without teaching them expectations. This is when communicating values about behavior becomes important. Therefore, letting them know things like “it’s okay to feel frustrated about not being able to see your friends but it’s not okay to throw your toys” is helpful.
Finally, while all of these are great proactive and preventative strategies, it is important to remember that no matter how emotionally intelligent your child becomes, they are always going to be human and may still be susceptible to meltdowns from time to time. That’s okay! The most important thing for you to do is to remain calm and kind. Additionally, you can respond empathetically even if your child is upset about a limit you have set. “I know it’s disappointing to have to stop playing your game to come eat dinner. You can leave your toys where they are and get back to playing when we’re done (or insert other alternatives here).”
You may be amazed at how difficult interactions with your children subside the more you lean in and let them know they have your support.
Footnote: examples of resources for teaching emotional intelligence to children include, but are not limited to: