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Managing Anxiety and Your Kids During COVID-19

May 5, 2020

As the Coronavirus Pandemic continues into its fourth month, we are all still finding new ways to cope.  In my private practice, a great many of my clients’ concerns center around the questions of “what and how much do I tell the kids?’

Kids are going to be “blue” as a result of this isolation.  They’re missing their friends, so it’s important to check in with your kids every day as a friend or a peer would. Try to have a consistent, mindful activity that you do with them, like an evening walk or making dinner together. Listening to what your child is saying -and NOT saying – is the key to determining where they are emotionally. Interacting with each other in this way builds trust and emotional connection. Quality interaction is most effective — not conversations about taking out the garbage or doing their laundry.  General questions, like “What’s new? “ are great ways to start a dialogue.

One way to determine if typical anxiety or depression is becoming more serious is observing any personality changes or behaviors that are out of character for your child. A highly social child who is noticeably absent from family activities is one such curious observation.  Don’t push at the moment of observation, but rather make it a point to check in later. Like allowing a baby to soothe itself, let kids process the situation on their own whilst you provide support, just like you would assist your baby.  Anxiety about the current situation is perfectly normal, and they may just be dealing with circumstances in their own way. By first letting your child work things out on his/her own, you are fostering development in healthy self-care skills.

Conversely, kids prone to getting trapped in a negative mental space, may exhibit increased impatience and irritability, apathy, or a lack of motivation. These are signs of mental and emotional overload and indicate intervention.  Also, difficulty looking at the big picture, focusing only on small details, and disruption of sleep and appetite are all indicative of emotional disharmony.

Some parents also ask how we should approach discussions about “contagiousness.” The best way to talk about it is in a manner that brings empowerment to the individual. Ask your child to pretend s/he has the virus.  Imagining what you would do if you knew you were contagious allows the individual to feel control of the situation.   This will provide a baseline for what your child understands about the concept of “contagiousness.”

As a side note, I do not like the term “social distancing”. I worry that individuals may take this to mean social isolation. Increased isolation is a good way to plummet, even if you are a natural introvert. Intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are both human intelligences which should be fostered and highly prioritized. We should remember that emotional connection can still happen six feet away from a loved one. 

Managing anxiety is essential in surviving a Pandemic and quarantine.

It can be overwhelming and debilitating.   Perhaps breaking down a large mess in your mind into smaller messes may bring relief.  A popular analogy I use is to liken anxiety to cleaning a messy room. It’s overwhelming if you look at the whole room, but if you plan to, ‘just pick up the socks and place them on the bed,’ that may seem more manageable. Before you know it, you’ll notice that you have a very neat and organized sock drawer. This accomplishment may lead to more drawers tackled and organized.

Another way to manage anxiety is to limit access to information.  Checking in just twice a day – in the morning for new developments and then in the evening for a recap of the day, is enough.  Other than that, try to avoid information overload with too much news. Sometimes disconnecting is healthy.

As far as offering specific coping methods, it’s hard to make general suggestions because everyone’s process is different; we’re not one-size-fits-all.  Keeping that in mind, I’ve listed some tools proven to work for others that might help you:

  • Exercise. Whether it’s yoga or Zumba or just walking around the block, exercise is a stressbuster.

  • Journaling is good if you like to write. If not, perhaps dictation into a recorder may be a helpful alternative in managing your emotions and getting your thoughts out.

  • Get outside in nature. Vitamin D deficiency is common in most humans and you need sunshine to process it. Get outside for at least 10 minutes per day.

  • Music. Make it, drum it, strum it, play it, sing it, crank it up!

  • Play an organizing or sequencing game like Mancala or cards. These games can manage anxiety by forcing you to focus on simple distributing and collecting. It’s a popular choice in my therapy room because it’s conducive to conversation.

  • Tackle a chore: rearrange the kitchen cabinet, clean a closet. . . or ten.

  • Establish a schedule or routine.  Predictability is a good management for the “what ifs.”

  • Try an activity that you have always wanted to do, by yourself and with each other. 

In reference to the well-known adage, I have come across a few adaptations which I thought were very fitting during these unprecedented and scary times.  I thought some introspective reframing would be a good way to end:

When things are bad, remember: It won’t always be this way.  Take one day at a time.  When things are good remember: It won’t always be this way.  Enjoy every great moment.

Be healthy and safe,

Veronica Lichtenstein, LMHC

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