March 27, 2020

Tips From Our School Psychologist On Managing Anxiety & Supporting Our Kids During The Coronavirus Crisis

by Sarah Davis, School Psychologist

You are far from alone if you are feeling anxious right now. As we navigate our way through the uncharted territory of COVID-19, assume new and daunting roles to keep our children healthy and occupied, and juggle work obligations from home, we may find that the background noise of anxiety has become deafening and overwhelming. The anxiety you are feeling is your body’s way of alerting you to potential crises so you can take actions to protect yourself and your loved ones. The coping mechanisms we have typically relied on during hard times (going out to dinner, spending time at the gym, connecting with friends) are no longer options as we implement social distancing. We are facing unprecedented times. Fortunately, many experts are actively providing us resources that can support us as we manage our anxiety and stress. Here are some of their tips to help calm fears, manage the stress, and to keep the peace.

Perhaps one of the most difficult limitations is to engage in social distancing so that we can prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Unlike anything we’ve experienced before, we are asked to keep a distance from our community while simultaneously pulling together to wage a war against the pandemic. The strength we garner knowing that “we are in this together” is the American way. But how do we navigate the need to be physically apart while embracing our need to gather as a community?

Richard Davidson, Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds suggests that we reframe our thinking. Creating physical distance is an act of compassion and kindness. We are compassionately protecting others when we practice physical distance. Social distance becomes solely physical distance. We can remain socially connected. We simply need to think out of the box. To support us in strengthening our new understanding - take a few minutes each day to intentionally ponder and remind yourself that our act of physical distance benefits the community and the world as a whole. Notice how that impacts your feelings. Does it change the loneliness, isolation or anxiety that you feel? Does it open up an opportunity to create a new way to be socially connected? Making compassionate connections with others through technology, writing notes or letters, making phone calls, and finding ways to gather while maintaining the physical space needed to be safe. Socializing plays an important role in regulating your mood and helping you stay grounded. And the same is true for your children.

Maintaining our daily routines and schedules may have taken a back seat during the transition to our new norm of working and schooling from home. Drifting through the day can promote feelings of anxiety. Setting and sticking to a regular schedule is key. Create a structure for your new routine. Maintaining consistency and structure are calming during times of stress. Kids should get up, eat and go to bed at predictable, normal times. Kids benefit from knowing what’s going to happen and when. Having a family meeting in the morning to create a daily schedule will allow children to feel that they have some control over their day. It may help to set a timer throughout the day, alerting children to the beginning or end of activities. Make sure that there is time, throughout the day, for downtime and physical activity.

Though children need predictability and normalcy, children need parents to spend extra time connecting with them. This is a scary time and nothing will help ease their fears like spending that time with their loved ones. Playing, taking a walk, cooking, cleaning, hanging out, are all ways we can truly be present with our kids. The trick will be to truly be present. Allow your time to be focused on them, talking about what they are interested in, allowing them space to express their feelings. Laugh and play. Perhaps you create some new family routines - talking a walk every evening, doing a game or puzzle, tackling a project together. David Anderson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, recommends brainstorming ways to go “back to the 80s,” before the time of screen prevalence. “I’ve been asking parents to think about their favorite activities at summer camp or at home before screens,” he says. “They often then generate lists of arts and crafts activities, science projects, imaginary games, musical activities, board games, household projects, etc.”

How we manage our own anxiety has a tremendous impact on how our kids handle their fears. The adage of putting on your oxygen mask first is no different when we are working with our own intense feelings. Strong feelings often hijack us, creating a filter through which we view the world. As we learn to simply notice and acknowledge the feeling we have more control over being hijacked or not. Identifying where in your body you might be noticing that feeling. Taking a moment to breathe and bring your breath into that part of the body can slow down the thinking (being hijacked by the feeling) and move your attention to your body.
The more we practice noticing our breath, the easier it gets. When we are hijacked by anxiety the lens through which we see the world can be changed. We may be caught in catastrophic thinking. We may assume every cough or body ache is a sign that you or one of your loved ones is infected. You may find yourself being pulled to reading every story you can find on worst-case scenarios. As you notice these behaviors remind yourself that you do have control over you and aim your attention. You can decide the amount of time you spend engaged in the news. Staying informed is important, but it’s a good idea to limit the consumption of news and social media that has the potential to feed your anxiety and that of your kids. Turn the TV off and mute or unfollow friends or co-workers who are prone to sharing panic-inducing posts.

Finally, remember to be patient, kind and reasonable with yourself. Though our tendency may be to strive for a gold medal, this is not the time to set that expectation for ourselves, or partners or our children. Be flexible. Relax some of the rules you may have enforced when school is in session, sports are a regular occurrence and going to work provided respite. We can explain to our kids that this is a unique situation and re-institute boundaries once more when life returns to normal. Sometimes the path of least resistance is the right path. Work in partnership with all members of your family. Tradeoff childcare with your partner, give kids age-appropriate jobs, work as a family team sharing the responsibility of keeping your home in working order. Having responsibilities creates self-confidence. The more opportunities we have to feel capable and needed, the less we will be overwhelmed by anxiety and fear.

Though these are unique and trying times, we have the opportunity to build resilience and confidence within ourselves and to allow our children to do the same.

Remember, we’re in this together.


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