Feeling in a constant state of alert?
Updated: Mar 10
How mindfulness and other strategies can help you and your children calm anxiety, manage emotions and stay connected through the pandemic.
During these times of high stress and uncertainty, our worries can overwhelm us, and it can be hard to manage emotions. Things are especially confusing with businesses reopening, while COVID-19 cases are still on the rise. Running errands can feel like a big event that leaves our minds racing with questions, concerns, and fears, and that constant stream of thoughts can continue to distract us throughout the day.
The simple fact that our minds are constantly racing with concerns is in itself exhausting because it puts us in a mild state of alert as we try to figure out the right thing to do. The mental back and forth, the doubts, the questioning, the pull to protect ourselves and our communities while also trying to meet our own needs and the needs of our children wears us out over time.
Now imagine being a child.
The world has changed, everything about their daily life and routine is different, and they haven’t seen their friends in months. Children are still developing the capacity to understand, identify, and communicate their needs and feelings. They notice the adults in their lives are a little more stressed, they notice that going out in the world feels much more dangerous. They notice it all.
It is normal for children to feel scared or uncertain right now, but as their guides, we want to help them become aware of their feelings and take appropriate precautions. However, kids may need some extra support learning to regulate themselves and modulate their behaviors.
Here is my advice on how parents can help their kids calm anxiety and manage emotions through Covid-19:
Signs of Anxiety and Other Behavioral Changes in Children (especially age 10 and under)
The first step in helping your child is becoming more aware of any changes in their behavior. Anxiety in children, for example, presents differently than it does in adults, so here is what to look out for:
More irritable or angry
Getting frustrated more quickly
Exhibiting less motivation to engage in activities they previously enjoyed
Less interest in exploring new activities and games
Increased tantrums or outbursts
Higher dependence on devices like phone and tablets
Isolating or needing interaction from you every five minutes
Difficulty focusing and learning
Changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, or bathroom use
Repetitive expression of worry or negative thoughts, through statements or questions
Somatic symptoms (tummy or headaches, etc.)
In my book, What a Feeling! The ABCs of Emotions, you will find 26 short and engaging examples of emotions to help your child understand and identify new feelings. Each page is a conversation starter, which includes associated bodily sensations and related words. It can oftentimes be helpful to identify an emotion by starting with the way it feels in your body. You may have noticed that some kids have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing and expressing their emotions. They may use the word “angry,” but they really feel frustrated, jealous, rejected or inadequate. Sometimes they need help differentiating between these terms.
If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety, try my simple ABC approach attuning to your child’s emotional needs:
A: Attune. if you notice something, pay close attention, be aware of new patterns or changes.
B: Break the silence. Tell your child about your observation, non-judgmentally. Be curious.
C: Care for their needs. Make necessary changes to support your child, listen, validate, instill confidence that you hear them and can handle their feelings.
Emotions for Kids and How to Help
There are many things parents can do to increase their child’s resilience and decrease the chances that they will develop mental health problems down the road due to the impact of Covid-19.
Here are a few ways that you can help your child manage their anxiety and regulate their emotions:
1. Be open and honest, but use language and concepts that you know your children are ready for. If we don’t give kids accurate information, they will fill in the gaps with their own imagination or concepts taken out of context, which can sometimes be much scarier than the actual truth. Let them ask questions, even repetitively. Then, answer them openly, honestly, appropriately, with patience and compassion, every time. They may ask about dying, they may ask what the virus does to your body, they may ask if it is okay to go back to school again, they may ask if they can see friends, they may ask when will it all be over. Over and over again.
Answer their questions, but if you have already answered them, or explained it several times, it’s okay to help them start to reason through the answer on their own by asking them reflective questions like, “What do you remember about the last conversation we had?”, and, “Do you remember some of the ways we are keeping you and our family safe?”
If we encourage them to think through how to access some of the answers that they already know, it will be easier for them to access that information when they start to feel anxious or scared.
2. Validate your own feelings and your childrens’ feelings. It’s okay to tell your kids that you are stressed, scared, anxious, or worried too. They probably have already noticed it anyways. This is an opportunity to tell them how you feel and model for them how to regulate yourself and work through difficult emotions. Remember, they are learning from you. When your children express how they are feeling, validate it. Don’t try to cheer them up, explain why they should be happy or grateful, or change the subject.
3. Model empathy Listen and show them that you can handle their feelings. If appropriate, let them know all the ways you are working to keep them safe. It’s always okay to ask, “What can I do to support you?” Maybe they just need a hug and for someone to listen to them. Maybe they need some reassurance that they are not in danger or that life will eventually go back to the way it was (or at least closer than the way it is now). Kids are very attuned to their parents’ emotions, they often filter how much they share based on how parents react to their feelings. If when your child expresses fear it makes you cry or anxious, they may be hesitant to share their fears with you in the future. Show your kids that you can handle their feelings. Instill an honest amount of confidence. Empathize with them.
4. Try mindfulness. I know it sounds cliche, but mindfulness is scientifically proven to “improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and well-being of young people who take part.” According to MindfulnessinSchools.org, “it can help reduce stress, anxiety, reactivity and bad behavior, improve sleep and self-esteem, and bring about greater calmness, relaxation, the ability to manage behavior and emotions, self-awareness and empathy.” The good news is practicing mindfulness is easier than it sounds.
In its most basic sense, mindfulness means intentionally focusing your awareness on the present moment, whenever you can remember to do so. For example, tuning in to your own internal processes and acknowledging your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. You can spend as little as a few minutes per day focusing your attention inward and teaching your children how to do it as well.
Try this: sit together and do a body scan meditation, starting with calling mental attention to your feet and moving up to your head while scanning for sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Notice them without judgement. (For more ideas for Mindfulness activities with kids, check out this article).
4. Play. Kids (and adults) need a variety of stimulation to promote well-rounded development. Usually, kids get that stimulation through school, extra-curriculars, playing with friends, spending time with other adults or family members, and just by being in different kinds of environments with different people. Right now, most of those sources of stimulation are unavailable. I know that puts a lot of pressure on parents to fill in these gaps, and it would be impossible to fully make up for the lack of access to all the other environments. However, if you notice that your child is spending all day watching TV or playing video games, they are most likely not getting enough variety in their sources of stimulation.
We don’t want to make rules (like no screen time) because, at this point, your child may not know many other ways to occupy themselves while cooped up at home.
Considering the times we are currently living in, it is fair to say that most of us are doing our best. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Practice compassion and empathy, with yourself and your family. By engaging in some of these activities, and attuning to your and your child’s needs, even for short periods of time, you can make a big impact on your family’s emotional and mental health.
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So how do we come up with engaging activities with kids at home? Check out my article: Are my kids falling behind academically due to Covid-19? 8 ways to promote applied education at home.
*First published on Medium.com