Everybody’s current circumstances are very different, but one thing remains true: We are all in the middle of a world pandemic. The reality is that COVID-19 will impact all of us to some degree. Some of those reading this are front-line workers (thank you!). Some have lost their jobs. Others are attempting to work from home while also suddenly being their children’s teacher. Despite our different situations, we are all dealing with some identical factors: The unknown of what the future holds, the added stress of juggling work (or work-loss) and children who are now at home 24/7. Our current circumstances can cause anxiety even for those who would not typically consider themselves as anxious individuals.
The following tips are laid out in a fairly broad way, understanding that we all (to some degree) are facing uncertain times and added stress, but also realizing that no two situations are alike. As a parent, I know firsthand how unique each child is. What works for one, likely won’t work for another one. Be kind to yourself, and know that you are doing the best job you can. I believe that you were given your children as a gift and that YOU are the best parent (positive and negative attributes and all) for your unique child.
1. Be aware of your own anxieties and how you respond to them.
Children are like sponges. Being aware of our own anxieties is the first step to supporting our children’s anxiety. This is not an easy task, and will take time. A great resource is: Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children by Lynn Lyons and Reid Wilson. Even if you don’t identify as an anxious person, we all experience anxiety to some degree. This book will help you learn how to model healthy coping strategies to support your children’s own mental health development. It is important that as parents we try to be cognizant of our own response to anxiety, and model healthy coping strategies in front of our children. Our children look to us when trying to interpret ambiguous situations. If they see that their parents are fearful, the child will interpret that situation as something to be afraid of. If you struggle with anxious thinking, the best thing you can do is to try not to display an anxious thought pattern in front of your children.
2. Be present and available.
Our children are more aware than we may realize about the current situation. At the beginning of the isolation period I heard my four-year-old telling my two-year-old that EVERYONE was going to die. “Grandma’s going to die, Grandpa’s going to die, our cousins are going to die….” And the list went on. My husband and I had been talking in the car about the facts, but never used any language to suggest that those we loved were going to “die.” In fact, when my four-year-old asked, I thought our response was quite good: “some people are getting sick right now, and yes we may get it too, but we will get better from it, there’s nothing to worry about.” The reality is, somehow she had interpreted what she overheard as “everyone we love is going to die,” and she felt the need to share that with her younger sister. It was heartbreaking to hear, but also important that I overheard this conversation. As parents, the best thing we can do is be available to answer their questions and correct any misconceptions. We may not know the answers, and that’s okay, but we can help our children get the answers.
Right now our children need us more than ever. We can be a constant for them as we all face unchartered waters. Parents need to be the safe spot for their kids. They will follow our lead. If we are calm, they will be calm. If we freak out, they won’t feel safe. Do things with your children as much as you are able to. The memories you can make together will be more valuable than anything else you can provide for them. Have fun! Be creative! Build memories that will last a lifetime. Also, be mindful of actively treasuring these family times as much as possible (even though there are so many jokes circulating social media about our children driving us crazy… let’s be real, parenting is HARD!).
3. Acknowledge their emotions.
Children do not know how to process their emotions well, especially the younger they are. They are experiencing loses that they don’t fully understand. They miss their friends and family. They may not be able to have a birthday party right now. Some are even missing out on graduation parties. Their feelings may be coming out in ways that you don’t fully understand. For example, their anxieties may be displayed by “acting out” behaviours, tantrums, and irritability. We can help them process these emotions by giving them the words to describe how they are feeling. For example, “I see you are upset. Is it because you are sad that you cannot hug grandma right now?” Instead of telling them to “stop crying,” let them know you “see them” and that you recognize that they are “upset/sad/mad.” This not only helps give them some language to use, but also makes them feel understood. Then, when they are calm, help them work on ways they could express those same emotions in more appropriate ways.
4. Implement routine as much as possible.
Depending on the age of your children, and your personal circumstances, this won’t always be possible. But, whenever possible, try to provide some structure to your children’s day. For instance, as much as possible, keep bedtimes and wake times consistent, and set aside time for school. Children thrive on routine, and during uncertain times they need structure more than ever. It’s also okay to be flexible and break routine from time to time. If school work doesn’t get done today, that’s okay! We want to try to lessen the stress, not increase it. This is also a great time to introduce new routines or family traditions. Maybe life was so busy before that it was hard to sit down as a family to have dinner. Schedule family dinner time now!
5. Limit exposure to the news.
This is a hard one. My inbox is flooded with COVID-19 updates and every other post on social media relates to COVID-19. We often expose ourselves too much to the news; we don’t want to miss that “positive” announcement. This behaviour is similar to someone who has a gambling addiction. They sit at the slot machine for hours (or days) in hopes that their next pull will be the “one” that makes them lots of money. Similarly, because of the random pattern of the “rewards” we are provided, we don’t want to miss anything. Maybe that “reward” is news that we are flatting the curve, or that more funding is being provided to those who are unemployed or for families, or maybe it has to do with businesses now being allowed to open.
The problem with flooding ourselves with the news is it usually increases anxiety. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to the news. It just means we need to limit it. Not only is this healthy for you, but also for those little ears that may be overhearing. So set a scheduled time(s) in your day to review the latest updates. Try to limit these times to no less than two hours before bedtime. And, engage in some sort of activity to “clear your mind” afterwards. Just like you would “cleanse your palate” between wine samplings, do the same between news updates. This could be something as simple as watching a TV show, doing an activity with your children, reading a good book, etc. It is important to try not to have the news on in front of our children, especially young children. Some kids are getting way too much information.
6. Get active.
With gyms, recreation centers and parks closed it can be hard to get physical activity in. Sometimes it’s also hard to muster up the motivation to be active. Physical activity is VERY important for your mental well-being. Encourage your children to get active in fun ways. Add this into your schedule and whenever possible make it fun.
7. Model self-care for your children.
Get active yourself. Set time to do things for yourself and let your children see this. Not only will this benefit you, but it also will help to model the importance of self-care for your children. Remember, you cannot take care of your children if you are not first taking care of yourself. This is a hard one to find time for, but it is so important.
8. Practice physical distancing, NOT social distancing.
The term “social distancing” is understood by everyone to mean physically distancing yourself from others. We must practice physical distancing, but more than ever we need social interactions. Connect with family and friends as much as possible, (while following the rules of physical distancing). Be intentional and creative with how you stay connected. Many organizations (churches, daycares, schools, clubs, gyms etc.) are moving towards social platforms to stay connected. There are endless ways to stay socially connected while physically distancing yourself from others.
As a family, identify people who may need to be “adopted” by your family right now; for example, those who live alone might need some extra support. This might not even be someone you know very well, but a neighbor who you have noticed lives by themselves. This will not only bless the “adopted” individual’s life, but, you will be modelling selflessness and empathy to your kids. A basic distress tolerance tool in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is to “contribute” (part of the A.C.C.E.P.T.S. strategy from DBT). By contributing (i.e., doing something for someone else or for the community as a whole) is rewarding and helps distract us from our own current distress (until we can better process it). Do something for someone else. Send “happy mail” to someone. Leave something at someone’s doorstep. Offer to go to the store for the elderly couple down the road. Be creative!
9. Seek professional support.
Believe it or not, many mental health professionals (e.g., psychologists / psychological associates, social workers, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, etc.) have more availability right now. If you are comfortable with seeking services through virtual platforms, now is the time to seek support for you or your children.
Most importantly, remember that parenting is hard. Be kind to yourself. Recognize that none of us have it “all together.” We are bombarded with “perfect family life” posts on social media. People don’t post the bad, only the good times. What we see on social media is not the realities of everyday life. We are all experiencing the ups and downs of the current situation. We will have good days and we will have bad days. Try and be kind to yourself, remembering that you are not alone. Stop and remind yourself what you have to be thankful for, even during the chaos of parenting. You got this!
--Laura Stevens, MSc, CPsychAssoc (Supervised Practice)