Even those of us with zero anxiety before the coronavirus pandemic are experiencing sleepless nights, tightness in our chests and racing thoughts.
This is scary! How do we help our kids who suffered from anxiety before all of this began? The key is not to try to take away the trigger, but to teach kids how to manage the unpleasant feelings associated with the anxiety and learn to tolerate the unknown.
Bill Gates recently shared an article by Ed Young on LinkedIn that states, “After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. Children whose bodies are mostly spared by the virus may endure mental trauma that stays with them into adulthood.”
Shalom Tikvah’s clinical team members will share some tips borrowing not only from their professional expertise but also from what they are experiencing in real-time with their own kids.
• Moderation: Shalom Tikvah’s Dr. Nicole Glick noticed her own worry waking her up at night. Upon the advice of a good friend, she is limiting her news-viewing to 20 minutes per day.
• Acknowledgement and Action: “Yup! This is really scary.” It’s OK to let your kids know that you and many others are worried, too. Normalize their feelings and empathize. Stay present — “we are all healthy today” — and do not enter the gloom-and-doom of what could be. Remind them that social distancing, handwashing and other healthy habits are what is most important. Do not promise that these actions will prevent illness, but merely let them know that we are doing what the experts recommend and this is the best we can do right now.
• Check in on Yourself: The current COVID-19 crisis is something affecting each and every one of us in some way, and it is inevitable that we will have feelings about it. At times like this, our children will take cues from us about how to respond. If we are worried, they will worry. Call a friend, reach out to a therapist, exercise — just do something each day to make sure you are taking care of your own mental health.
• Routines: Last week, we emphasized the importance of flexibility and lowering the bar. Again, it is a fine line. Most kids thrive with consistency and some structure. Talya Knable, LCPC, Shalom Tikvah’s assistant clinical director, shares that she has been encouraging her clients to develop some structure to their day. Not a minute-by-minute plan, but something that allows you and your kids to know what to expect. Keeping nap and bedtimes as close to the same time each day, having “free” time or outside time after lunch every day, even something as simple as Tuesday is “chicken nugget night.” Keeping some consistency will create a feeling of stability in an unstable time.
• Silver Linings: They are there, we just sometimes have to look a little harder. Talya encourages us to notice the language we are using. Are we focusing on what we cannot do? Instead, she urges us to focus on what this is giving us the opportunity to do: more family time, trying new recipes, playing games and doing puzzles, finally organizing the dreaded junk drawer. While it is healthy to empathize with kids (and yourselves!) about all of the wonderful things that we are missing (birthday parties, sports games, big family seders, graduations, etc.), if we can keep the majority of our focus on what we are getting to do, our children will come out of this more resilient than ever.
• Get Creative: Shalom Tikvah clinician Tamar Livingstone explains how parents can help their children create “sensory tool kits” at home much like the ones she often makes in the office. Helping children connect to their senses can help ground them to the present, allowing anxiety to move through their bodies and help them gain a sense of stability. Tamar suggests that kids decorate a shoebox. It can be fun for them to cut up old magazines with pictures of things that they find calming or that make them happy, or they can just color or paint it in their favorite colors and decorate it with stickers. Over the course of a couple of days, help them fill this box with items that correspond to each of the five senses. Tamar’s favorites include stress balls made from balloons filled with rice, glitter jars (a plastic water bottle with warm water, glue and some glitter), a scented lotion or a spice that they like the smell of, and for sound, she recommends finding an app (such as “Calm”) that plays soothing sounds or calming music. When kids start to show signs that they are becoming overwhelmed, you can encourage them to pick something from their tool box to help calm them.
• Breathe: When we are calm, the body is in what is known as “rest-and-digest” mode. Breathing is normal, your muscles are relaxed and your heartrate is normal. Under stress, the body automatically goes into “flight, fight or freeze” mode. This is uncomfortable as the heartrate increases, the stomach stops digestion and breathing becomes more shallow. These feelings alone propel the spiral of anxiety as kids start to wonder, “What is wrong with me?” and “Why can’t I control myself?” Using shapes to help kids learn to control and slow their breathing when they are calm is so important, so that when they are worked up and we tell them to “take a deep breath,” they know exactly what to do. Use this link for some free printables with cues that they can use to practice as they trace the shapes with their finger.
• Forge Connections: After reading our last article, a friend reached out to share how much her teen daughter was struggling. She was not the kid to initiate social contact before all of this, so this level of isolation is really taking its toll. We talked about ways to forge connections, and came up with the idea of a mother-daughter Zoom “party” with some of her friends and their moms, and they could all play a game like the “Psych!” app from “Ellen’s Game of Games” TV game show series. Whether it is texting, FaceTiming or good, old-fashioned phone calling, hearing other people’s voices experiences and laughter may just be the very best medicine of all.
Next week, the Shalom Tikvah team will share tips and tricks for behavior management while we are all home with our kids (24/7!) to keep your kids on track and your sanity intact!
Shalom Tikvah Inc. (shalomtikvah.org) is a non-profit organization that uses an innovative approach to treating mental illness and other stressors by treating the entire family system with comprehensive therapy as well as wraparound services. Shalom Tikvah’s clinical team, Nicole Glick, PsyD (clinical director), Talya Knable, LCPC (assistant clinical director), Rachel Berman, LCSW-C, and Tamar Livingstone, LGSW, along with Jennifer Grossman, director of operations, will be contributing weekly to Jmore. If there is anything you want their experts to address, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.