Author’s Note :: I am not a licensed professional. However, my daughter has experienced anxiety and adjustment disorder tendencies for almost two years. In that time, we’ve practiced getting ahead of it as a family and with her play therapist. Below are ideas and exercises we’ve adapted that have helped in our journey to a happier, calmer family environment.
The first few weeks of quarantine started out as a breeze for our anxious girl. The pressure of having to attend school every day was gone, she didn’t quite understand the severity of what was going on outside of our home, and she was able to keep in touch with her friends virtually. She was having fun, being super helpful and acting sweet to her brother.
Then the novelty wore off.
Our daughter started feeling suffocated by her new reality.
We tried not to call it a “new normal” because we knew things wouldn’t stay like this forever. We also couldn’t wave a magic wand when the quarantine gets lifted and instantly go back to the way things were. Her little seven-year-old brain was starting to pick up on this.
She was in limbo, and she hated it.
I was starting to see this new way of life getting to her. Under normal circumstances, we’ve kept her anxiety at bay by planning ahead or lots of preparation. During these uncertain times, however, we had to take it one day at a time. We grabbed hold of the problem the way we do when we’ve seen her start to lose control in the past.
Even if your child has not officially been diagnosed with anxiety, they may be acting out more than usual while in isolation. Here are a few ideas you can put into practice to help alleviate anxiety and worry about being in quarantine.
Keeping a Routine – This is crucial when dealing with anxiety. Keeping a routine, even if you are staying at home, means that they know what’s coming next. Does any kid enjoy sitting down for an hour to knock out their schoolwork at 10am? NO. However, if you plan it at the same time every day, it takes the guesswork out and makes their bubble feel safe.
Practice Keeping an Open Mind – Talk to your child about what happens when things don’t go their way. This is a challenging situation for any family to be in, but it’s important they understand that change is an inevitable part of life and to keep an open mind about the world around them. Have them try a new food for the first time. Maybe you have movie night on Fridays, but this time you could switch things up and have a family game night instead. Praise them when they roll with the punches and try something different.
Slow Down – As a Type-A mom, this was a challenge for me, but if we want our children to feel calm and safe, we have to slow down. Even if you’re following a routine, it’s important to read your child’s cues and take things slower than normal. This is an unprecedented time in everyone’s lives, and we all need more time than usual to process everyday activities. Try to take it one task at a time instead of rattling off their to-do list.
Validation – While they need to be safe about expressing themselves, it’s important we validate that it’s ok to have big feelings. Emotions can be messy and intense. A statement as simple as “I understand you are feeling frustrated” can be what they need to hear to start an open conversation and keep the situation from escalating.
Deep Breathing to Stay Calm – Try as we may to avoid our children’s triggers, sometimes we have to tell them no. Period. Try to give two choices to offer some control of the situation if applicable. For example, “It is time to take your bath now. Do you want to do it on your own, or do you want my help?” There are times, though, that we have to be the bad guy and say, “Time’s up. Do it now.” Cue the steam from their ears … teeth are gritted, fists are clenched; they’re ready to roar.
This is when you practice breathing. Get down on their level and have them take five deep, long breaths. There … all better. Psych! It’s hard to get kids to simply focus on breathing to make their outburst or rage dissipate. As adults, we can take a time out, walk away, take our breaths and center ourselves but it doesn’t always work for us either. That’s why this next practice is key.
Deep Breathing With Distraction – When they’re steaming mad in the moment, it’s hard to get a child to focus on simply breathing. You can send them to their room to occupy themselves with a distraction. After they’ve calmed down, they can come out and move on to the task at hand. Here are some examples of distractions that can help them regain control while deep breathing (that’s very important):
- A guided breathing or meditation app
- Organize their dresser/knick knacks
- Play with dolls or action figures
- Say the alphabet backwards
- Color a picture
- Listen to music
In our personal experience, my daughter does not enjoy doing anything that involves too much brainpower, like reading or LEGO, to help her calm down. I find that if there is any part of the task that is frustrating, it exasperates the situation. This may be different for your child, though, so I suggest trying several things to find what works.
Setting Firm Boundaries – Often when children feel out of control, we don’t catch it in time. It’s understandable to want to sympathize when they start to teeter or panic. However, that never makes it ok for them to cop an attitude, fly off the handle or sass you. If the outburst has already gone too far, immediately send them to their room. No matter how much they ask or insist on your presence, I suggest not giving them an audience when they are that mad. It only makes the situation worse. You’ve armed them with the tools they need to calm down on their own. They should practice them until they can come out and decide to be respectful again.
Following Through With Consequences – If there is refusal to go to their room or stop the negative behavior, enforce a consequence. Something as simple as taking away access to Wi-Fi, the tablet, or losing a treat is enough to let them know you mean business. Here is the trick … it is not for any set amount of time. THEY HAVE TO EARN IT BACK. This triggers the positive behavior, such as being nice to their sibling or helping around the house.
Now say it with me … breathe in, hold, and exhale. If nothing else, try to stay calm yourself, step away if you have to, and make sure you’re taking steps for your own self care and mental health as well. We’re all in this together. Solidarity, mama!