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Expert Advice: Helping Ourselves and Our Kids During the Coronavirus Crisis
By Emily Savage
Posted on March 27, 2020
We know that the shelter in place brings uncertainty and with uncertainty can come periods of anxiety and stress. We are all doing the best we can to keep our kids happy, homeschool, keep our own sanity in check and anxieties at bay. But it can get overwhelming at times, and this is to be expected. We are grateful to bring the knowledge and insight of Dr. Becky Kennedy to you during this time. She is here to help dim the anxiety for both parents and kids during this time.
JOIN US for a LIVE interview with Dr. Becky next Wednesday, April 1, at 12 pm CST. Dr. Kennedy will be talking more about ways to help manage anxiety for both you and your kids during this time. She will also answer your questions. Be sure to tune in to our FACEBOOK LIVE @bumpclubandbeyond to watch!
Guest post by Dr. Becky Kennedy
What an anxiety-filled time to be a parent. I’m Dr. Becky Kennedy, and I’m a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, resilience building, and parenting.
Let’s first review how anxiety works. Anxiety emerges when uncertainty about the future is coupled with your underestimation of your ability to cope. That second part, the underestimation of our coping, is where we can make significant change. We need to start talking to our anxiety and reminding it that we are strong and full of grit.
Let’s review some strategies to help manage our anxiety. To be clear, these strategies will not erase your anxiety. With everything going on, anxiety is a totally normal and adaptive response. But I hope to help dim the anxiety lightsa bit, so things feel more manageable. After that, I’ll review some strategies for the day-to-day difficulties of parenting children while in quarantine.
Five Strategies to Manage Anxiety for Parents:
Before I launch into 5 strategies, please read this a few times: We cannot regulate a feeling until we first name it, make sense of it and allow it to be there. So, every time you choose a coping strategy, first engage in these three steps: Acknowledge-Validate-Permit. If you don’t, the coping skill will be ineffective.
Before You Do Anything Else…
A) “I’m feeling anxiety right now. My chest feels tight, which is a sign of my anxiety.”
B) “Our body interprets changes as threats… and wow, there have been so many changes! Makes sense that I’m feeling so anxious.”
C) Give permission. “I give myself full permission to be feeling anxious. Anxiety is not my enemy. It’s my very loud friend.”
Give your anxiety a name. Maybe it’s the name of some well-meaning but too-loud-for-her-own-good friend you had in high school. One of my Instagram followers told me that she named her anxiety Fran, which I loved.
Talk to this person. Something like, “Hi Fran. I see you. You are a part of me but not all of me. I also have a part of me who feels capable, but she’s a bit drowned out right now because you are so loud! I’ll keep talking to you, Fran, but I’m not going to let you take me over.” If you can put a gentle hand on your chest at the same time, even better. As long as we name and talk to a feeling, that feeling won’t subsume us.
Deep belly breathing with a longer out breath than in breath turns on the circuits in our bodies that start the calming-down process.
Learn how to do a straw breath. You can involve your children as well, announcing, “I’m thinking about all the changes in our life. I’m going to take 5 deep breaths. Want to join me?”
Practice a Schedule and Boundaries for Worry-Time
Schedule in 5 minutes of Worry Time at the top of every hour or two, at which point, say to your anxiety (yes, really speak to it!), “Worries, you’re getting my full attention right now.” Grab a notebook and record your worried thoughts and feelings.
At the end of Worry Time, talk to your anxiety again: “Okay, worries, our time is up for now. I’m going back to my kids. Only 55 minutes until I give you my full attention again!” Take a few deep breaths. When your worries pop up again, remind them, kindly: “I hear you. I’ll give you my full attention very soon.”
Anxiety involves worrying about the future. Coping involves returning to the current moment. Announce to your kids, “Let’s all pause what we are doing. Let’s name items in the room that we see right now. I’ll start.” Then name physical items around you (a table, a rug, a slice of apple) or even name something about your body’s position like, “My feet are pressed into the ground.” This activity reminds our anxiety: that we are here, right now, in a moment and are surviving and managing ok.
Record Five Manageable Moments Per Day
A Manageable Moment is a moment when you feel capable, at ease, productive, light-hearted, *or* grounded (not all of these at once… please, we’re in a crisis!). Examples: “Sipped my coffee and all felt ok” or “Did a puzzle with my daughter.” You might even predict that your future self will continue to find Manageable Moments as the weeks go on.
Five Strategies to Help our Kids with Anxiety
If you remember nothing else from this article, please hold onto this: kids don’t need our help feeling better. They need our help making sense of things. Now more than ever. When we approach our children’s feelings (and ours too, see above!) with a goal of understanding instead of changing, they simmer down. They really do.
Before You Do Anything With Your Kids (this will sound familiar!) …
A) “There are so many changes in our life. That can feel so tricky.”
B) “It makes sense that you’re having a bit of a hard time right now. Changes are hard to figure out.”
C) Give permission. ” You’re allowed to feel as angry as you do. Now, I won’t let you hit your sister, but you can feel the anger and I can help you figure out how to express it in a safe way.”
Tell Your Child What Is Happening
We often worry that information will scare children. Here’s the thing: nothing is scarier to a child than wondering why his world has changed and being alone in his concerns because no adult will talk to him about it. I believe that so much of the dysregulated behavior we’re seeing right now is the result of kids feeling unsafe – not unsafe related to the virus, but unsafe because adults are not giving them a way to understand the massive life shift they’re experiencing.
So speak slowly and softly to your child, as these non-verbal aspects of communication help kids feel safe even if the words feel heavy. Age-appropriate truth delivered from a loving present adult feels safe to kids.
Here’s an explanation for a very young child, maybe 3 and below: “You’ve probably noticed that things have changed. We are all home, not seeing Grandpa, not going to our bagel place! Here’s why: there’s a germ like a cold and it’s very very jumpy, from one person to another when people are close to each other. So all the people are staying home because the germ can’t jump from one house to another!”
Here’s an explanation for a slightly older child, maybe 4 to 6: “You’ve probably noticed that things have changed. And you’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of talk about this new word, Coronavirus. Let me tell you what’s going on: Coronavirus is like the flu. It can make some people feel sick. It travels from one person to another person who is closeby, but people realized that if everyone stays home, we can stop it. It’s kinda like all the people are on one team and the germ is on the other team. This is why we are home together and we can’t do so many of the things we are used to doing.”
Make Two Lists with Your Kids: Change and Same
With your kids’ participation, make two lists: things that have changed and things that have stayed the same. Write things down as you brainstorm, because writing things down makes things feel more concrete and, therefore, more real to kids. Give your child the space (meaning… wait in silence!) to generate items on his own. Validate anything your child says. It’s so important that your child feel some sense of control and agency in this time.
Start Saying This to Your Child: “I think you’re telling me that nothing feels quite right. Nothing feels so good right now.”
The world doesn’t feel as good as it did weeks ago, and children sense that. So if your child is particularly difficult to satisfy right now – he wants to be picked up then put down then meltdown ensues, wants the yellow shirt no the red one no the yellow one then meltdown ensues …
Take a deep breath and don’t get caught up in the storm. Step back, look at it, and tell your child warmly, “I think you’re telling me that nothing feels right. Nothing feels good right now.”
Structure = Predictability = Safety
Out of control behavior reflects out of control feelings, and structuring a child’s day helps a child feel more grounded. Put up a schedule that declares independent time, art time, screen time. It’s critical that before screen time occurs, you let your child know exactly how many shows are permitted – and maybe also add in a prediction of how ending will feel, so your child can get prepared: “I know it may feel hard to stop at the end, sweetie.”
Many parents have found it helpful to have a schedule for food – including the time of each meal and snack and what each will be… just like schools do. This helps a child know what to expect and helps minimize power struggles, as you can tell your child, “Ah… today’s snack is pretzels. I hear that you want rice cakes, I wonder if you have any ideas for how we could make that happen a different day?” Pause and wait for your child to problem solve, maybe asking if you can put that on the snack schedule another day.
Give Your Child More of You
Every child needs at least 10 minutes of one-on-one time, no devices or distractions. You can do anything your child wants during this time. The point of it is communicating to your child: I’m here with you, you are safe, we are connected.
Play the “Fill Your Child Up” Game. When children are in the midst of major life transitions (like now!), they need more of us to feel anchored. And they need “more of us” to be made concrete so they really “feel” it. So, in the morning, announce: “I want to fill everyone up with Mommy!” Go to one child and give a long squeeze. Then say, “I think Mommy only made it to your knees… round 2…” and do another squeeze. Then, “Only to your belly? I thought I got higher! Ok round 3…” You get it – continue until your child is “filled up.” Then… here’s the kicker: Once your child is filled up, do one more squeeze, saying: “Ok, well let me give you some extra, just in case. So many changes these days, probably good to have some extra mommy stored up in there.” And, try this: Use the “Fill Up” idea as a Generous Response to your child’s behavior. It works miracles because it speaks to exactly what is going on for your child: he has ungrounded behavior because he needs more of you to feel grounded. Try, “I think you’re telling me you’re not filled up with Mommy. ” And go over for a squeeze to start the game.
Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, building resilience, and parenting. Dr. Becky received a BA in Psychology and Human Development, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, from Duke University and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. She maintains a private practice in midtown Manhattan, runs parenting groups and workshops, and lectures on various mental health topics.
Stay tuned for for more the Bump Club and Beyond Team. We’ll be providing you many ideas for things to do over the next few weeks when we’re home with our kids right here. Check it out for ways to keep busy, Amazon Prime haul for keeping kids entertained, 101 Movies for Parents, online activities, virtual fitness and MORE! We’ll be updating our ideas for you and your family daily.
Make sure you’re following us on Instagram and Facebook for more ideas as we navigate both COVID-19 AND parenthood together.