Managing Your and Your Child’s Anxiety During the Pandemic
Worry, confusion, and shifting ground contribute to the anxiety and fear felt by many children (and adults!)
A barrage of news coverage, evolving circumstances at home and in the world, and an onslaught of changing recommendations during the pandemic leave many of us wondering how to best keep our families safe. Anxiety and fear are normal responses to these unsettling circumstances. Heightened anxiety can trigger the “fight or flight response” – helpful if you’re being chased by a lion – not so much in our current situation. Better to let common sense and calm prevail! Start to do this by attending to the practical aspects of caring for your family, your aging or ill loved ones, and your work, as well as figuring out what you need to do to manage your own anxiety and stress.
This guide provides tips, tools, and suggestions for managing anxiety during the pandemic.
Understand what NOT to do.
Before moving on to our list of anxiety-reducing strategies, get a handle on which behaviors and activities are contributing to any mounting anxiety, and reduce them as much as possible. This approach of “addition through subtraction” can yield great results. For instance…
- Take a news break. Watching or listening to the news or reading news stories on the internet all day long is generally not helpful. Consider checking the news just once or twice a day, and only consult reputable sources, for example, the CDC, the World Health Organization, or your state or local government websites. Verifying that your sources are reliable is especially important. Avoid relying on social media posts, which are more likely to include alarmist stories or misinformation.
- Be aware of and avoid scams. Unfortunately, scammers take every opportunity to get you to click or respond and reveal personal information, especially during times of crisis. Don’t fall prey to scare tactics or suspicious offers on the internet or on the phone. Be discriminating about who you talk to or respond to online.
- Don’t deny your anxiety. Experts say that the more you try to tamp down or banish anxiety the stronger it may become. Try to accept what you are feeling, notice where it “lives” in your body, and acknowledge it. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, and the coronavirus pandemic is unfamiliar territory.
Take positive steps to manage anxiety and stress.
Now that you’ve turned off the television and stepped away from social media for the moment, what positive steps can you take to relieve your anxiety?
Here are 12 practices and activities you may find helpful. Find what works for you and make it part of your routine.
- Go outdoors. Being outside (especially in the sunshine) improves mood. If you can get to a park or the local woods, you’ll get some exercise and a dose of nature. Going outdoors is safe and acceptable if you keep your distance from others; a minimum of six feet is the current recommendation. Chatting with other dog walkers at a distance is an example of pulling together while staying apart. But no petting other people’s dogs! If there are no parks nearby, or you are uncomfortable with the idea of running into other people, get out on your balcony or deck, or walk around your backyard instead.
- Accept what you can control and let go of what you cannot control. Think about it and make a list. It can be helpful to identify in writing:
- Things you have control over: For example, you can wash your hands; you can call your sister; you can call elderly neighbors to check on how they’re doing; you can model social distancing (aka physical distancing); you can take a half hour to play a board game with your child.
- Things you do not have control over: For example, you cannot change the length of a school closure; you cannot control how other people behave; you cannot change the way the stock market fluctuates.
- Listen to music. Whatever genre of music works for you — helps you feel calm or improves your mood — listen more. Music is important in every culture to reaffirm identity, shared values, and shared community. Some research shows that listening to music can aid in concentration and even boost the immune system.
- Move more. Going to the gym or attending Zumba class may still not be possible in some areas for a while. Or you may be uncomfortable with the arrangements made for their re-opening. YouTube is replete with all sorts of exercise programming — from five-minute workouts to extensive training regimens, dance routines, yoga, and tai chi. Not into YouTube? Clean the house, climb stairs, balance on one foot while brushing your teeth, sit on the floor and stretch. And, if you’ve followed our recommendation above to listen to more music, it just might lead to a dance party with you and your kids!
- Stay in touch with your people. If you choose to meet with friends or relatives in small gatherings, be sure to follow the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing, wearing a cloth face covering or mask, and washing your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds when you get home. Stay home if you’re sick! If you continue to remain apart from your loved ones to prevent the spread of the virus, stay in touch remotely to keep each other’s spirits up. Phone calls, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Zoom and a host of other ways to connect are available to check in with friends and family.
- Watch a movie; read (or listen to) a book. Both these activities are great distractions on their own. Make it a virtual group activity by planning to watch a movie with friends each at your own homes and then have a Google Hangout or Zoom discussion afterward. Set up an online book club and create opportunities to stay in touch with friends and family.
- Do a project or learn something new. Occupying yourself and your hands can help settle your mind. If you haven’t done so already, now is a great time to clean out drawers, start a jigsaw puzzle, or finish that knitting or woodworking project you once started. Online classes, online museum exhibits, and other online “field trips” are a great way to expand your mind, access your creativity, and connect to the larger world around us.
- Download a meditation app such as Headspace, Insight Timer, or Calm. YouTube also has guided meditations available and options for practicing focused, calm breathing. Or, forget the apps, and just breathe, in through your nose, out through your mouth. Ten times. Repeat as necessary.
- Create a routine around your self-care practices. Routines are comforting and can “bracket” the more chaotic spaces in between. For example, take a break every day at the same time for a walk. Whether you’re now working at home or not, end your workday at the same time each day if possible, and detach/disconnect as much as you can. Try ending each day with a hot bath, shower, or other relaxing ritual.
- Reduce your caffeine intake. Coffee, tea, chocolate, and “energy drinks” all contain caffeine. If you tend to get jittery or anxious when you have too much caffeine under normal circumstances, you may be even more sensitive under stress. Keep a close eye on how much caffeine you are ingesting and consider decreasing your caffeine consumption slightly to see if that helps calm you. Don’t cut out caffeine completely all at once, however. Doing so may give you a headache!
- Make time to laugh. You’ve heard the saying, “laughter is the best medicine.” And while it may seem counterintuitive, this old adage is especially true in times of uncertainty. Watch funny movies, television shows, or stand-up comedy. Be silly with your kids. Call or video chat with your funniest friend.
- Remind yourself that most cases of COVID-19 are not severe. According to recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 causes mild to moderate illness in the majority of people.
See to your own needs.
You may be preoccupied with meeting the needs of those you love — and not paying enough attention to your own. Conserving your energy and resources continues to be important in the next normal. And the next one after that. Ask yourself, “What do I need to manage the day-to-day demands of work and family?” Then, take a moment to listen, really listen, for an answer.
Consider the five most important things you need to feel safe and supported. Be specific. In one exercise, we asked for five concrete examples written in the form of “I” statements. Here are some examples of the things that people we asked shared with us:
- I take at least 30 minutes each day to myself, with no interruptions.
- I enjoy a hot meal for dinner.
- I make sure my car’s gasoline tank is always at least half full.
- I am the last person to turn off the lights, lock up, and turn in.
- I rough-house with my dog.
- I drink my morning cup of coffee in bed.
Now name three to five things you need every day that contribute to your sense of well-being. Write them down using an “I” statement. Be sure they are in the present tense, as if you are already doing them. If they are things that you can make happen, make them a priority, and do them. If there are items, actions, or behaviors that others can help with, ask for the help and support you need.
Managing your own anxiety benefits you and all those who depend on you.
Determine how much structure your family needs.
Remember our suggestion about making a list of “things you have control over?” Determining the extent to which you create order and structure through your family’s daily routines is likely to be one of those things.
If you or your children thrive on routines under typical circumstances, writing up a schedule of your family’s daily activities may be a good way to curb uncertainty and stress. Your family schedule may include specific times that are blocked out for sleep, family meals together, chores (yours or your child’s), study or work, solitary activities (like crafts or reading), and family activities. Consider creating the schedule together, posting it somewhere highly visible to all members of the household, and having everyone check off each item or activity as it is completed. Reuse the schedule by slipping it into a plastic sheet protector and writing on it with a dry erase marker.
If you have a young child or a child who is non-verbal, visual schedules may be preferable to written ones. A morning checklist, evening checklist, or “if, then” board can help you build predictable routines.
Alternatively, some families may find that the best way to cope with unusual or stressful circumstances is to let go of rigid routines or expectations and think outside the box. If your family falls into this category, trust your gut – it’s okay to pioneer or experiment with new ways of being.
Have your child(ren) help around the house.
If your child is attending school remotely, either part- or full-time this year, it’s likely your home will feel very “lived in.” And general messiness can cause an extra dose of stress for parents.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be responsible for all household clean-up on your own. Unless your child is very small, have him or her help around the house. Try setting a timer for, say, 20 minutes once a day during which time everyone helps straighten up and otherwise put the house in order. A little bit of effort each day can go a long way!
Don’t expect perfection.
These are not typical times. We can’t necessarily hang on to our usual expectations without causing ourselves and our children undue stress. Now is not the time to expect perfection. You might just have to throw that carefully crafted schedule out the window on some days, or all days. You can try again tomorrow. Or not. And it’s okay.
The house might be messier than it usually is. Your child might use more screen time than you’d normally allow. You might struggle to balance parenting or the care of loved ones with your work; some days you’ll feel more competent in one of these areas than you will in another. And the next day, the balance may skew in the opposite direction. That’s also okay.
Like everyone else right now, you’re doing the best that you can. And the best that you can is good enough.
Help your child manage anxiety.
Anxiety can be contagious. Chances are that if you’re feeling overly worried, your child might be, too – which, in turn, may cause even more anxiety for you!
Parents and caregivers can help kids remain calm and assured by remaining calm themselves and acknowledging an appropriate level of concern without panicking. Supporting your child by modeling, sharing information, and offering opportunities to make (controlled and safe) decisions or practice self-regulation will help build your child’s resilience.
Consider the following tips on how to address anxiety about COVID-19 with your child:
- Reassure your child that care providers, health officials, and other adults are doing all they can to prevent the spread of infection and keep people safe.
- Provide accurate, age-appropriate information about the illness along with instruction on how to reduce the chance of illness (such as handwashing). Many children are comforted by the idea that they have control over some things, too.
- Let your child ask questions and discuss concerns openly. Acknowledge your child’s anxiety and use accurate, age-appropriate information to re-frame their concerns.
- Ask “What do you think would help you right now?” This opportunity for introspection is a great way to develop self-awareness and agency.
- Offer extra affection during times of worry.
- Breathe together.
- Limit television viewing, social media, or news access that may be upsetting to your child, and explain that not everything being said about the coronavirus (online, in the media) is accurate.
Talk to your doctor.
If your anxiety becomes severe or you are experiencing increasing levels of depression, contact your doctor, therapist, or a qualified health professional to find out if there are other options that may help.
If you feel unsafe at any time, dial 911 for emergency assistance.
Torchlight does not provide medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice because of something you read on Torchlight. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911.
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