At this point in lockdown, many of us are feeling the strain of emotional exhaustion. We may be struggling with feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty, and the disruption to our normal routines and being cooped up inside may at times feel overwhelming. As parents, this situation may make us feel like commanding killjoys as we constantly tell our kids to wash their hands, forbid them from touching anything outside, and insist they don’t enjoy the playground or see their friends. Such drastic life changes may also worsen or trigger anxieties kids were already struggling with, which may add to parents’ concerns about their children’s wellbeing.
A survey of over 2,000 people that Azoomee conducted in April 2020 revealed that parents are increasingly worried about the impact the pandemic will have on their family’s mental health. More than two-fifths (42%) of parents have seen their children become anxious, withdrawn and aggressive. In single-parent families or those with one child, that figure rises to 56%.
So, what can we do to help kids cope with anxiety in healthy ways?
The first step is for parents to set the emotional tone. How parents respond emotionally to a challenge, whether it’s a family crisis or a global one, greatly influences how kids react. It can be useful for parents to think of themselves like pilots of a plane, with your kids as the passengers. When turbulence arrives, the passengers need to know someone is in charge. Amidst this uncertainty, kids need someone they can trust to guide them through it. Remember that anxiety can be as contagious as a virus, so it’s a smart idea to have tools at hand to calm everyone in the household. By using the following techniques, parents can empower kids to be the ‘boss of their brains’ and find the courage that is in them.
5 Ways to Cope With Anxiety
- Breathing (Hot Cocoa, Dragon Breathing)
- Grounding (connect with our 5 senses)
At its core, anxiety is actually a physical response. Our bodies become primed for ‘fight or flight’, and our brains jump into a future-thinking ‘what if’ reaction. Breathing is a way to neutralise the chemicals in our body, and it brings us back to the present. By changing the physiology of the brain to a state that’s more relaxed, breathing gives your brain the break it needs. There are two exercises you can do with your kids to get them to understand and implement strong, steady breathing.
‘Dragon Breathing’ is about breathing in for three counts and then breathing out hard and fast, as if you’re a dragon. Ask your kids to imagine they’re dragons and blowing out fire with gusto! Do this five or six times.
‘Hot Cocoa Breathing’ is another imagination exercise, where you ask your kids to pretend they’re holding a cup of hot cocoa. Ask them to breathe in the warm chocolatey smell for three counts, then hold it in for one count, then blow the hot chocolate cool for three counts. Repeat this a few times and explain to kids that by doing so, they’re teaching their brain what to do when they feel anxious.
It’s important to practice these breathing techniques when kids are already calm. If kids practice their breathing over and over again, they’ll be able to draw on these skills as a tool when they most need it.
Grounding is all about connecting with our five senses. It brings the brain that was holding onto the future, back to the present. Ask your kids to look around the room and notice and label things you can taste, smell, touch, hear, or see. For example, ask them to name five things in the room that are yellow, or five things in the room they can smell, or five things they can taste. You can go even further and ask your kids to describe the way something smells or feels. The idea is to get them grounded in the present moment and the immediate area around them.
Mindfulness is about focusing on one thing in the present moment without needing to analyse it. For example, a mindful walk would include honing in on simple things, like what you feel underneath your feet, or paying particular attention to how the breeze feels on your skin. By doing this, you can rewire the brain in a way to make it more resilient in the face of anxiety. It quite literally changes the structure and function of the brain. It’s important to note that, similar to breathing exercises, mindfulness needs to be consistent. There are quite a few apps available that kids can use on their own, like Smiling Mind and the Calm app. Even just two or three minutes a day can be extremely helpful, and kids can get to the point where they can do this independently.
Ensuring we get enough exercise can be especially challenging now that we’re stuck at home more than ever before. But keeping our bodies active is a key ingredient to positive mental health. Exercise balances the level of neurochemicals in the brain that help calm anxiety. Although being outside in nature is best, kids can also dance or hula hoop or move their bodies in any way. Anything you can do to get your heart beating will do the trick, so try getting creative with playful ways to incorporate movement.
One of the things that’s important to remember about anxiety is that it’s based in negativity. This is where gratitude is a saving grace, since it makes positive thoughts and experiences more accessible. If we regularly notice and acknowledge what we have to be grateful for, then over time we’ll be primed to recognise the positives in life. Gratitude strengthens the part of the brain that can calm anxiety. You can’t just command your kids to automatically “think” happy thoughts, but we can allow our brain to build its capacity to feel happier. Daily gratitude during a bedtime routine is a great way to calm kids before they sleep, or you could do a fun project with them by making a Rememberlutions Jar, which is like a gratitude journal, but in a jar.
Finding Our Brave
We are all adjusting to a new normal and dealing with a pandemic, so it’s understandable if all of our tensions are running high. At the moment, it may feel particularly distressing for kids because the coronavirus is actually a real threat. And it’s key to remember that anxiety is a normal response to an unfamiliar or challenging situation. Both kids and parents may get more anxious during this time as we deal with health, financial and security concerns. The goal in practicing coping techniques is to become better able to manage anxiety even when there is no threat; when we want to face something and be brave.
If you notice your children struggling, approach the topic and be sensitive. Acknowledge the big stuff going on in the world and validate your kids’ worries. Pay particular attention to the emotional tone you’re setting. We’re wired to feel stressed when our kids are stressed. So we need to gain the tools to calm our own anxiety first and lead by example. Always make sure to acknowledge what’s going on for you. Don’t just soldier on and put on a brave face. Model your own capacity to feel things, struggle, and face them. In this way we can send the message that anxiety is manageable. It may feel at times like it’s not, and it can be overly intrusive. While there’s no magic wand, there are effective strategies to cope.
A Positive Future
This unprecedented time actually does have a silver lining. It’s offering us a chance to encourage our kids to become more resilient. We’re also being given an opportunity to be more flexible and forgiving of ourselves and others. Social isolation can take a toll, but we’re all human, we’re in this together, and we’re all doing the best we can.
Karen Young has worked as a psychologist in private practice and in educational and organisational settings. Her website Hey Sigmund offers information on emotional topics and attracts millions of readers each year worldwide. Her book Hey Warrior helps kids understand why anxiety feels the way it does, and what they can do to feel better.