Finding Calm: Tools and Techniques for Helping Children and Parents Cope with Anxiety
With Randi Pochtar, PhD, Ellen Birnbaum and Sally Tannen
Anxiety in all of us—including children—is exacerbated by extreme circumstances, such as the one we’re all weathering with COVID-19. Early Childhood Programs Director Ellen Birnbaum and Parenting Center Director Sally Tannen sat down with psychologist Dr. Randi Pochtar, from the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, NYU Langone, for a talk on the topic of children and anxiety one night in February. They share their advice as we all try to adjust to new challenges and help our children cope.
It’s important to begin by establishing that anxiety is a normal, adaptive stress response related to our thoughts. Anxiety actually helps keep us safe, and allows us to accomplish things. But too much anxiety can interfere with our ability to handle everyday life and situations, and this is equally true for children. We are in uncharted territory, so parents' own coping mechanisms are being challenged. But how parents handle a crisis themselves is greatly influential in how children respond.
To determine if your child is feeling especially anxious, evaluate by The Four Ds:
- Dysfunction: How does the anxiety interfere with activities or daily life? Is the anxiety getting in the way of schoolwork? social engagement (even if remotely)? family life?
- Distress: How much distress is it causing your child? Does it take them a long time to recover? Does it disrupt your child’s sleep? Do you have difficulty soothing your child?
- Deviation: How different is this behavior from the way your child normally handles things?
- Duration: How long has the problem been going on?
The Fight, Flight or Freeze response is typical of an anxious moment. To help your child, remind them (and yourself) that their reaction is incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous or wrong. It’s their body doing its job. For example, our anxiety right now is helping us keep ourselves safe by washing our hands, maintaining appropriate distance from others, and not touching our faces.
How can parents help?
- Help your child understand why they might be anxious.
- Provide validation: "It makes perfect sense that you are missing all of your friends and your teacher. You are used to seeing them every day!"
- Read books with stories of bravery and courage. People who are brave can feel scared too, and they push through.
- Provide exposure with you as their safe base.
- Make some adjustments, but don’t be too accommodating. When you make too many changes to accommodate fears, you validate the fears.
- Praise efforts of bravery or trying.
- Set a schedule that allows for downtime.
- Externalize the anxiety. Take it outside of them. Again, right now it might be hard to differentiate worry that is accurate from worry that is unhelpful. Do your best to help your children focus on what they can do to keep safe and let go of worry that is unhelpful.
- Provide relaxation training to help your child calm down when they are feeling anxious. Try “pizza breaths”—smell the pizza through your nose and cool the pizza off by blowing through your lips. Try shaking off the worry. Or have your child picture themself in their favorite place. These tools help a child’s body relax so they can confront the anxiety more calmly.
- Differentiate between the “real alarm” and the “false alarm.”
- Provide a “layout” of what your child can expect in a situation so your child can predict what’s coming.
- Create and follow repetitious routines—they help ground children.
- Check yourself before you respond to your child. Where are your own thoughts? Are you catastrophizing? Manage your own feelings before you attempt to help your child. Children alway look to their parents to see if they are safe and okay.
- Model coping with anxiety. Tell your child how you cope when you feel anxious yourself.
- If your child is really struggling, she may need extra help, and that’s ok. Reach out to a professional.
As families are hunkered down at home together, the only thing many are not finding endless is their square footage. With kids going to school online and parents working from home, we’re navigating more than our emotions these days—we’re jockeying for physical space. Parenting Center Director Sally Tannen offers some thoughts on how to make sure everyone gets some of what they need in this time of giving up so much. Here's what she has to say:
It's important that everyone in your household has a space to call their own, at least some of the time. It’s easy for us to get on each other‘s nerves when we’re living on top of each other day after day. I’m a great believer in the value of a schedule. Make sure yours doesn’t only include all the things that need to get done, but quiet time, or "me” time, for each member of the family.
We think in terms of “finding space” for a certain activity, but in fact, we’re not finding it, we’re creating it. Look around your home or apartment and create some special spaces. Many children share a room with a sibling, so creating a little sub-space within that shared space can be extremely meaningful to a child.
For young children, there’s nothing more fun than a tent they can call their own. Arrange two chairs and a sheet, and you’ve created an entirely new space. Tuck a few pillows and a flashlight in, and it can be a cozy place where they bring their favorite toys, or look at a picture book, or where mom or dad can read to them (if they’re allowed in!). You can even help little ones come up with rules they can post on the door about who can come in during certain times and who can't. This gives children some control at a time when they have virtually none.
Adults are feeling that loss of control too. Sometimes something as simple as a pair of headphones or an unhurried shower can help create the feeling of a special space. Look around, get creative and help every member of your family have a space of their own for at least a little time every day—it’s renewing for everyone, and will make the time together all the sweeter.
Parenting Center Director Sally Tannen shares inspired playtime ideas using your everyday laundry basket!
1. It’s a boat! A plane! A train! Let little ones climb in and become the captain, pilot, etc.
2. Turn the basket upside down, drape a cloth over the top, and it’s a table for a tea party!
3. Push cotton balls or corks through the holes, collect and repeat (young children love to “put in” and “take out”).
4. Use an upside down basket to make a tent (and a great place to hide!).
5. Older kids can shoot hoops—using balled-up socks! (Keep the game challenging by having them stand increasingly farther back.)
Advice from Ellen Birnbaum
What does a parent say to a young child worried about the changes in their world? How can we keep our own stress from being felt by our children? Early Programs Director and former 92Y Nursery School Director Ellen Birnbaum offers some advice:
Working from home, going from one device to the other, I find that I actually have to remind myself to breathe. As we are role models for our children in managing anxiety, we have to remember that we need to take time for relaxation, even if just for short periods. Children are aware of and sensitive to our tone of voice and facial expression. If we look worried, they will react with worry. This crosses all age ranges. With younger children, less is more when it comes to responding to their worries. Children might be asking questions right now like, “Why are we not going to school?” or “Why do we have to stay home?” Parents can respond by simply saying, “We need to keep safe.” My grandchildren—who we typically see at least once a week—are asking why we can’t see each other. We respond by saying, “We will see each other soon.”
Reading stories to children is a great way to help them deal with their emotions, and can give parents additional ways to talk to them and reassure them. Ellen loves these three books:
For very young children:
- Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
- Swimmy by Leo Leonni
For four- and five-year-olds:
- Brave Irene by William Steig
Make a Weekday Schedule for the Family!
92Y Parenting Center Director Sally Tannen offers some tips for creating structure to allow both parents and kids to thrive best:
For young children:
- Make a visual schedule. Little ones love being to see the activities for the day, and having something concrete really helps them.
- Create the schedule together as a craft project. Use stickers, draw pictures or glue photos on the chart—whatever cues you think will help children know what to expect.
- The sequence of activities will be as works best for your family, but categories can include things like:
This is when we take a walk
This is when we have lunch
This is when you have your nap
This is when we have playtime
This is when we read
- Screen time is difficult to eliminate entirely when everyone is home and children are restless. Designate an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon when young children can use a screen device, and be clear that the other times are when they can’t.
For older children:
- Creating a general schedule is still important, though the shape of that will be very different for a seven-year-old than a 12-year-old.
- Establish guidelines and communicate them effectively.
- Screen time for older children needs to take into account online schoolwork and learning, along with a family’s regular allowances and routines. But it’s very easy for older children to become more deeply engaged in texting and social media when their regular activities are temporarily unavailable. No one knows your family better than you. Remember that you’re still in charge, even if you get some pushback!
Three Things Families Can Do Together
Families are going to be spending a lot of time together, and our Parenting Center will be offering suggestions for all kinds of activities to keep young children active and engaged in the days ahead. Most important is that parents maintain routines - or create new ones - whether it’s the time children have breakfast and brush teeth or help with daily household chores (now is the perfect time to involve them more!). Routines help ground us. Embrace them!
Here are a few suggestions for fun activities:
1. SCAVENGER HUNT
However familiar home feels, it’s filled with sightings and treasures just waiting to be recognized. Have your children try to find everything red in the house, or note how many things are round, or shiny. Use the opportunity with a baby to point things out and name them. Older children can make a checklist, crossing off the things they see in classic “I Spy” fashion. They won’t just have fun, they’ll be developing their skills as observers of the world around them.
2. BAKE COOKIES
Young children love being involved in the kitchen, and even a 3-year-old can help measure, pour and stir, plus they get to eat the cookies that result! They’ll be honing their fine motor skills while having sweetly messy delicious fun. Watch for lots of creative “Kids in the Kitchen” ideas from The Parenting Center in the days to come!
3. CONNECT WITH LOVED ONES
Not being able to visit Grandma or a favorite cousin for awhile is disappointing for everyone. In addition to phone time and skyping, help your children create a daily communication, drawing a picture or writing a little message every day to send to their loved ones. Make it the first thing they do after breakfast each day, to help reinforce routines. Whether Nana is across the country or a few blocks away, everyone will be nourished by the expression of love.
Children are going to love all the extra attention! Stay well, and please be in touch with us!
Director, 92Y Parenting Center