This is tough for all of us. We are navigating uncharted territory.
For parents, the challenge multiplies because we are responsible for the well-being of ourselves and of our children. Those of us with older parents feel responsible for the well-being of yet another.
If you’ve read my book, “The Worry Workbook for Kids” you know that a situation like this, where there is uncertainty and no clear plan in place, is prime breeding ground for worry for kids. All of us are susceptible to getting stuck in a worry cycle, not just children or those who struggle with anxiety. It’s just how our brains work!
How do you cope and how can you help your child cope?
What you can do:
1. Limit News and Social Media to no more than twice per day for you and your family. You won’t miss anything AND you’ll be more present and relaxed throughout the day. When there is uncertainty, our brains which are designed to protect us, are primed to seek information that can keep you safe. So, there’s always a really strong pull to access news. The irony is that we actually feel more anxious the more information seeking we do. The more we check the news, the message we send to our brain is that we are in danger. Before long, we are stuck in a worry cycle where we are not really seeking information anymore, we are seeking reassurance – anything that might provide some relief – either through escape or through reassuring news, so this includes social media. Help yourself and your family truly relieve anxiety by reducing the number of times you check your phone.
2. Chart out the Week. You’ve heard this hundreds of times by now: keep a daily schedule. Stability and structure are important for well-being and reassuring to children. Maintain your child’s typical waking times, meals, and bedtimes and most importantly make sure their day includes doing some type of work – both academic and chores. Reducing demand creates apathy and boredom and it makes it harder to pick up again when it’s time for regular demands like normal school days and homework. But be sure to plan lots of “play” time including “free” or unstructured time – it’s the thing they need most to drive creativity and positive emotion. It also helps them feel less distracted during their “work” time because it eliminates the feeling of being deprived.
3. Demonstrate calm and confidence (even when you don’t feel calm or confident inside!). Speak in a calm and confident voice. Validate their feelings (“It’s understandable that you feel scared/bored/angry”). It is OK to reassure your child. Children are still developing their understanding of the world and don’t have the range of life experiences that we do, so they are not ready to consolidate information that doesn’t fit with what they understand just yet. So, it is OK to reassure them that “We’re going to be OK,” even if you are not 100% sure yourself. We shouldn’t lie to them, but we also shouldn’t give them information they may not yet know how to wrap their minds around. Find out what they know and go from there. Stick to answering questions and ask them what questions they have. Give answers that are clear and short and don’t add too many details that they may not understand.
4. Exercise. I wouldn’t call it “exercise time” on the schedule, but do plan enough time each day for at minimum a cumulative hour of exercise. Take a daily walk with your child or as a family. If you have access to a yard, play outside. Throw a ball around or play Frisbee. Dance to a favorite song. Play tag. Start a hoola-hoop or jump rope contest. Many exercise studios are now streaming virtual exercise classes (e.g., Exhale, Cosmic Kids Yoga, Yoga with Adriene). Figure out an exercise that you and your child like and do it together. Exercise is a natural, fun, and effective way to reduce anxiety and improve overall mental and physical well-being.
5. Accept Imperfection. Accept imperfection and be flexible in knowing that you might not be able to stick to your plans perfectly right now. There is no way with half the time, half the resources, half the options, half the support, that you are going to succeed in accomplishing 100% of your goals right now. If you think, “it’s a perfect time to finish the basement clean-up” you’ll end up feeling frustrated and anxious whenever something interrupts your plan. Instead, set your expectations to be more realistic and focus your priorities on your big picture values. Instead of setting productivity as your priority, set your priority of using this as an opportunity to connect with your kids. You’re off the hook for everything else! Remind yourself that you accomplished the most important thing – showed your kids how loved they are.
6. Try to keep a 5:1 positive to negative attention ratio. Kids express worry in ways that are not always clear. They don’t have the words or the practice identifying emotions that we do. They may be more impatient, crankier, or more obstinate, than usual. Be patient and stick with the plan to accept imperfection. They are reacting to the stress in the environment and the change in the normal routine and don’t know how to soothe themselves. Positive attention is reassuring and calming and makes everyone feel good. Shoot for giving 5 statements of positive feedback for every 1 piece of negative feedback you give each day. The kind of behavior that you are looking for is also more likely to come when your child is getting more positive attention than negative.
7. Encourage them to take action. To get “unstuck” from a worry cycle, the fastest and most effective strategy is to focus on an action. We think of it as focusing on what you can control. Rather than trying to calculate, prevent, or change things outside of your control, plan on what you can do today to help yourself, your family, and your community. Encourage your child to do the same. Have them make plans and take action. They can write thank you letters to medical professionals or those working hard to keep us safe. They can plan a trivia game for the family for a game night activity. They can plan the menu for lunch or dinner for the next day.
By, Dr. Muniya Khanna