In times of uncertainty, stress abounds. With school closures all over the country, recommendations for social distancing, and non-stop news about COVID-19, it’s natural to feel anxious and overwhelmed.
Stress and anxiety can trigger psychosomatic symptoms like headaches (including migraines), stomachaches, neck and back pain, and feeling run down. It can negatively affect sleep, immunity, moods, concentration, and relationships.
Stress and anxiety can also have a circular pattern within families. Parents are stressed and it trickles down, kids experience stress and exhibit behavioral symptoms, and this triggers more parental stress. The cycle can also begin with the kids and climb up to the parents. Either way, families need to prepare for stress and anxiety during this difficult time.
Signs of child and adolescent stress/anxiety
Kids and teens generally don’t say, “I’m stressed,” or “I’m anxious.” Parents need to look for clues. You know your child best. If something seems off, it probably is. Watch for any of the following symptoms of stress and anxiety, but also pay attention to emotional or behavioral changes that you notice that might not be listed here:
- Psychosomatic complaints: headaches, stomachaches, other aches and pains, not feeling well
- Increased irritability
- Anger and/or angry outbursts
- Complaints of dizziness, racing heart, sweaty palms, or feeling lightheaded
- Increased crying
- Unexplained sadness
- Regressed behavior
- Hair twirling, nail-biting, or other anxious behaviors
- Asking the same questions over and over
- Sleep disturbance
- Fear of sleeping alone
- Poor focus or concentration
It’s essential to remember that all children are different and no two kids exhibit exactly the same symptoms. Adults and kids use all kinds of strategies to fend off feelings of stress, including humor, sarcasm, blame, and isolation, to name a few.
The fact is that we all need each other during times like this. We need to meet negative behaviors with empathy and understanding to help kids, and adults, work through this. Remember this: all feelings are okay. There is no right way to cope with this kind of stress and anxiety.
It is important to take an active role in reducing stress as much as possible while the kids are homebound and their normal routine is disrupted.
Get back to basics:
It might be tempting to throw the schedule out the window during this time, but routine helps kids know what to expect. Boundaries feel safe. Try to stick to your usual family schedule.
- Sleep: Disruptions in sleep can be hard to recover from (think about how it feels for kids to transition back to a school schedule after summer break) and insufficient sleep increases stress, symptoms of anxiety, and symptoms of depression. In short, bedtime stays the same.
- Get outside: You can, and should, get fresh air and exercise. Create a nature scavenger hunt and walk around your town looking for items on the list. Avoid playground equipment and wave from afar when you see friends and neighbors.
- Make healthy choices: Be sure to stick to your child’s usual mealtimes and focus on eating the rainbow.
- Structure: Kids who attend school every day are accustomed to a certain daily schedule. While it’s likely difficult to copy the exact school schedule, adding some structure (work time, playtime, outside time, chore time, etc.) to your day will create a feeling of security for your kids.
Create a tech plan
Some kids are required to attend school via their tablets and laptops during school closures, while others have work packets to complete with additional online learning. Either way, it stands to reason that kids will be plugged in at times. It’s best to get ahead of this issue by creating a family tech plan.
In an effort to preserve healthy sleep habits, it’s a good idea to shut down technology at least an hour before bedtime and keep technology out of the bedroom at night. Do keep in mind that video chat apps will help kids stay connected during this time, so it helps to carve out social tech time, as well.
- School tech time — this accounts for logging in for classes and completing assignments
- Social tech time — maintaining social connections is important
- Relaxing tech time — apps like Calm and Stop, Breathe, & Think Kids are great for mindfulness and deep breathing
- TV/Movie time — It’s okay to watch a little more, but balance it out with outdoor play and reading
- It adds up fast! Create a timeframe and stick to it. Adults should follow the rules, too.
Play is therapeutic
When in doubt, play it out. Play is healing for kids of all ages. It helps them work through their feelings, overcome obstacles, and restore a sense of calm. Your kids don’t need a room packed with fancy toys, but they do need the freedom to make a mess and get lost in their ideas.
“I’m bored” are two words that trigger parents, and for good reason. Parents are never bored. Many parents crave time for boredom. Kids say this more often when they’re looking to connect because they don’t want to be alone. Join their play to strengthen your bond and provide support.
Encourage acts of kindness
Kids love to make cards for all kinds of holidays. They don’t need to wait for the next holiday to roll around to send some love notes to friends and family! Get out the markers and paper and get back to the art of the handwritten note. This gives your kids an opportunity to brighten someone else’s day and strengthen their connections.
Finding the best coping strategies for each kid can take some trial and error, but try some of these to get started:
- Journaling (drawing or writing)
- Square breathing: trace a square in your palm while breathing in for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four.
- Balloon breathing: Design and blow up an imaginary balloon. Remember the counts listed above.
- Coloring books/sheets
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Blow bubbles
- Dance to your favorite song
- Bubble bath
- Take a mindful walk outside
- Guided imagery
- Stress ball (you can even make your own)
While there’s no easy button when it comes to decreasing stress and anxiety, families can take this time to connect, work together, and prioritize emotional health during this difficult time.
Hurley, K. (2015). The Happy Kid Handbook, New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin.