“We are in the midst of chronic stress,” says Marcia Slattery ’83, MD’88, who is a pediatric psychiatrist, UW professor, and director of the UW Anxiety Disorders program. When COVID-19 began to greatly impact the U.S. in March, she says, we saw acute stress. “That’s when you saw stress-driven behaviors like people fighting to get toilet paper and canned goods. You were seeing acute survival instinct,” Slattery says.
“When our brain ‘sees’ we have a plan, anxiety decreases,” Slattery says.
But now, as the societal and economic fallouts loom, and as many areas continue to operate under tight restrictions, the acute, on-the-spot stress is making way for a chronic-stress model. This type of long-lasting stress can cause significant wear on the body and mind. Think of it like a marathon without a defined end point: “We don’t know how long to pace ourselves.”
Adults are feeling the impacts of this chronic stress, certainly, but so are children. Teenagers are “starving for friends,” says Slattery, as they’re unable to fill their developmental need for social interaction. Grade-school kids are missing the camps and activities that teach them new life skills. And kids even younger who are in their formative years are at risk for learning social distancing and avoidance as “normal.”
12 Tips to Help Manage and Understand Anxiety
While we don’t yet know the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic, there are some things that parents and adults can do to help mitigate some of the natural anxiety and stress that is surfacing. Today’s model for understanding and managing anxiety in children relies heavily on supplying parents and kids with tools and resources to be able to better manage anxiety and stress at home. Here are 12 tips to help guide the children in your life through anxiety in a time of pandemic.
- 1. Actively work to incorporate your kids in planning.
- Anxiety thrives on uncertainty, and one of the greatest stressors is feeling a lack of control. Planning can alleviate some of those feelings, and helping your kids feel a sense of agency — even if it’s over what time they exercise each day — can help them regain a sense of control.
- 2. Post a schedule for each day.
- “When our brain ‘sees’ we have a plan, anxiety decreases,” Slattery says, “There is now a “roadmap” to anchor the day; things are more predictable, and we can feel ‘ready’ about what is to come.” She recommends thinking about your daily schedule like you think about the “healthy plate” of nutrition. Your biggest “portions” should be physical exercise, learning time, social time, and activities. Unconstructive screen time should be more like dessert — a much smaller amount.
- 3. Create a menu of activities for each part of the schedule.
- With your child, come up with a ‘menu’ of options for each activity category of the day. “If you say to a kid, ‘This is physical exercise time,’ they’re going to say, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do, and I’m bored,’ ” says Slattery. “Instead … go to the fridge, look at the menu for physical exercise, and pick one of the activities listed as choices.”
- 4. Make sure their schedule includes alone time.
- “It doesn’t have to be all fun, fun, fun,” Slattery cautions. “That’s not good either. You need quiet time in there. Everybody needs their own space and personal time.”
- 5. Establish a daily family check-in time.
- Five minutes each day can go a long way, says Slattery. Remember, anxiety feeds off of uncertainty. Your kids may not know if their camp will be cancelled or when they’ll be able to see their friends — but knowing that they’ll have a family sit-down and check-in every evening can make a big difference. Make it constructive: recap the day and go over tomorrow’s plan. “It’s a way of building in communication on a daily basis,” Slattery explains “Kids will pick up that family time is important and anchored as part of everyday routine.”
- 6. When choosing virtual experiences, include ones that involve a tactile or physical component.
- As school and family functions move online, screen time increases. This is a big concern for Slattery. Screens are mostly two-dimensional and encourage mainly passive engagement. “If we’re not getting [kids] out and engaging in a variety of real-life experiences,” she says, “they’re not going to have the degree of multi-sensory stimulation in different environments that’s really healthy for brain development.” So, what can we do? One suggestion is to ensure that when screens have to be used — for camps, workshops, etc. — try to add a physical component. Maybe it’s a virtual art class where they create something or an exercise video that they follow along with. “Find ways to make activities multi-dimensional by tapping into different senses, movement, and creativity,” says Slattery. Flexing these different parts of the brain help you to stay mentally flexible and creative during times of anxiety and stress.
- 7. Make masks fun!
- For some kids, having to wear a mask is a source of anxiety. Mitigate the stressor of feeling a lack of control by giving your child some ownership over their mask. Have them design, shop for, or select their mask for each day or outing. Establishing a sense of agency can greatly minimize anxiety.
- 8. Help them remember that it’s not a staring contest.
- It may sound simple, but help your kids remember that in “normal” conversation, you don’t stare directly into a person’s eyes the whole time. Typically, you would take in the person’s entire face, body language, and surroundings. But with masks, “the brain automatically goes to what it can see, which is the eyes,” says Slattery. It presents an interesting dilemma, she adds, since people with anxiety tend to feel less comfortable with direct eye contact. “We’re going to be a lot more focused on eyes now as a means of communication, and for both adults and kids, this can be both uncomfortable and confusing.”
- 9. Practice in a mirror!
- “If indeed we’re going to move forward for quite a while yet in needing to use masks,” Slattery says, “then we have to normalize it and help kids understand how to use masks and still be able to communicate.” Remove some uncertainty by practicing. What do happy eyes look like? What do sad eyes look like? Pretend you’re in acting class and, with a mask on, stand in front of mirror and challenge each other to convey different emotions.
- 10. Meet your kids where they are.
- Big concepts like “COVID-19,” “furlough,” and even “pandemic” can be confusing. Ask your kids to tell you what words they’ve heard — and what the words mean to them. This will give you a sense of what they’ve absorbed and what their understandings are. “Once you understand where they’re at, then you can shape your response,” Slattery advises. “Be thoughtful about how a kid would perceive or experience this. … Think, well, if I was a kid, what would I think? What would this be like for me right now?”
- 11. Normalize emotions by talking about them.
- Helping kids understand and name emotions is very important — and that starts with you. “Pay attention to your emotions,” says Slattery, and don’t be afraid to talk about them! “Help kids really identify their emotions so they can use a word to convey [them] to others. If [emotion is] foreign, and you never talk about it, why would we expect [kids] to say, ‘I’m feeling really anxious right now?’ … Make it part of normal life. Help them learn to convey an emotional state.”
- 12. Remember that no one size fits all.
- Your children’s understanding of what’s going on, their ability to convey emotion, and their ability to react, is dependent on many factors — a key one of which is their developmental stage. “A child’s brain goes through massive changes and growth during childhood and adolescence. These changes significantly influence how a child perceives, understands, and responds to situations. Younger children ‘see’ and experience the world very differently than an older child. Keeping these developmental differences in mind is critical when talking to kids of different ages,” Slattery describes. “We have to match them where they’re at for discussions to be meaningful.”