- Nicole Ekiss, LCSW
Supporting Your Child's Mental Health in Uncertain Times
The current shelter in place orders and social distancing protocols can be tough for parents and children alike. Children are social creatures too and are grieving the loss of school and peer interactions. They may also be grieving the loss of anticipated events and their normal structure and routine. Their sense of normalcy has been stripped away and we can't give them a set timeline of when things will go back to normal. This can cause children to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Although our current circumstances can feel frustrating and overwhelming, it can also be an opportunity to foster resilience in our children and help them learn to cope with uncertainty. There are two hard truths of life: 1) Tough stuff is going to happen and 2) You will handle the tough stuff because you have to. We are responsible for teaching kids how to handle these tough situations by helping them problem solve, teaching coping strategies, and helping them feel connected through the tough stuff and difficult emotions. Here are some strategies that will help build resilience and coping strategies in children.
1. Validate Their Feelings
This is tough for all of us and children may at times feel out of control. Telling them to "calm down" is not the solution. Validate their feelings by saying things like, "I know this tough" or "I can see you're upset, do you want to talk about it?". Validating their feelings will help them feel connected both with you and with their inner world. Children sometimes struggle to identify their own feelings, so giving a name to their feelings can be helpful for them to be able to work through them. You can do this by making observations, such as "you look angry" or by identifying how you would feel in a situation. Making a statement like, "I think I would feel angry if I had to miss a month of school" can be very powerful in connecting with your child or teen.
2. Schedules and Routines
Building a schedule and routine for your child will help foster a sense of normalcy and assist your child in feeling more secure and in control. Schedules help children know what to expect. In a world filled with uncertainty, a routine allows your child to identify things they can control and count on. Maybe it is something as simple as a bedtime routine of a soothing bath, story, and being tucked in. The routines don't have to be elaborate, just consistent. Allowing your child a say in their routine can also be helpful. Set times aside each day where they can choose the activity or let them choose what's for lunch or dinner on certain days of the week or month. Choices help children feel in control.
3. Schedule "Worry" Time
Scheduling a time each day for your child to express their worry can be extremely helpful. It allows your child to "vent" and express their concerns in a healthy way. Listening and responding to their worries can help them feel connected and in control. You can help them problem solve and build strategies for feeling more in control and handling difficult moments. Allowing your child to make a worry box, write down their worries, and put them in can be helpful or having them write worries down and then rip them up and throw them away after you guys talk about them can also be helpful. If children are consistently worrying about the same thing, having a designated worry wall in your house can be helpful. Allow your child to write about or draw a picture of their worry and then place it on the wall. Place the picture high up on the wall initially. As they start to feel less worried about it, they can move it down on the wall and eventually take it off the wall and discard it when they no longer feel worried about it.
4. Focus on the Positive
Help your child focus on what is going right in their world or what they do have control over. There is a lot going on that they don't have control over, but helping them find things that have stayed the same or that are within their control will help them build resilience during this time. One thing I do with children that are struggling with anxiety or worry, is to play what I call the "but at least" game. Sometimes a child may be unable to focus on the positive and move beyond their worry. The "but at least" game is a fun way to find silver linings and help children move past their worry by being playful and fun. The game starts off by stating the worry and then we come up with a "silver lining" to the situation. We continue coming up with "silver linings" or things that aren't going wrong. Some of them are practical and serious, but many of them are silly and fun. For example, the original worry or frustration may be "I can't go play at the park." A silver lining may be "but at least I can still play on my swing set in my backyard". Another silver lining may be "but at least I am able to be home with my family." Then we throw in some silly ones like, "at least I'm not stuck on Mars with no way home" or "at least robots haven't taken over the world". The idea is to get them giggling and thinking about things that aren't going wrong rather than what is.
5. Teach Coping Strategies
There are many coping strategies that children and adults alike can utilize to keep themselves grounded and reduce anxiety. Breathing strategies are highly effective in mitigating anxiety and stress. The most common technique is belly breathing. You ask the child to place their hand on their stomach and slowly take breaths in and out noticing their stomach move in and out as they do. Encourage them to keep their shoulders and chest still and try to fill their stomach with air, like a balloon. Another great breathing technique is 4-7-8 breathing. In 4-7-8 breathing, you breathe in while counting to 4, hold the breath while counting to 7, and release the breath while counting to 8. This process gets repeated as many times as needed and helps to slow the breathing down which will help activate the problem solving parts of the brain. Other strategies can include the use of stress balls, sensory bottles, or weighted socks. Stress balls can be purchased (Amazon has tons of them) or made at home by putting play-doh or sand inside a balloon and tying it up. The following link offers great ideas for making your own sensory bottles: https://www.the11best.com/diy-sensory-bottles/
Weighted socks are also a great way to soothe an anxious child. These can be made from tube socks by filling them with rice and then either tying them at the end or sewing the end closed. You can make them fun by giving them a face if you want! Allow your child to sit them in their lap or across their shoulders when they are feeling anxious.