The list of worries for families during this pandemic can feel overwhelming and preoccupy our thoughts. Do you know if these worries are impacting your kids? I would like to take some time to discuss how the overanxious mind can “trick” both parents and kids, and then share some strategies to help counteract such anxiety-based thinking.
The “Tricks” of the Overanxious Mind
1. Future uncertainty
Anxiety can trick us into focusing on what may happen months or even years from now. Anxiety can trick the brain to start worrying about the “What will the world be like in a few months?” For kids, “Am I going back to school this year?” and “Will I still have my summer camps?” can be a normal reaction, however not helpful when the status of their lives are changing daily. If you find yourself worrying about things beyond a month or two from now, tell your anxiety, “‘I’m not going to let that trick work since the future is out of my control. I’m going to worry about the next couple of days and weeks and those issues that I can address now.” For kids, some of these symptoms can present as stomach and headaches and other physical symptoms.
2. Fear of the unknown
Our anxious mind tries to draws conclusions about what will happen next to us and our family. For example, you or your kids may believe that contracting COVID-19 is just a matter of time. Your anxious brain may not believe the facts, or weigh out the degree of risk. We know that staying away from crowds, wearing masks, and washing hands are greatly reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19. Worried kids, fearing the unknown, may repeatedly seek reassurance from parents, with questions such as, “Are we going to be okay?” or, “My nose feels stuffy, do I have the virus?” Kids may also feel reluctant to separate from parents, have trouble sleeping, or eat far more or less when anxious.
3. Repeating thoughts of worry
Our anxious brain may ruminate on uncomfortable thoughts in a constant loop. For example, a young teen may think, “I need to see my friends… if I can’t see my friends they will lose interest in me… I’m so lonely, my friends are probably texting with each other while I’m here alone… what if they’re ignoring me… I’ll lose my friends.” The worry thoughts play over and over in the brain and often grow with increased focus on such worries. For kids this can cause meltdowns, tantrums, and even oppositional behavior due to the constant worry.
4. Preoccupation with shiny objects and screens
We may concentrate on things that help distract our anxious brains, such as tv shows, movies, you-tube, texting, and video games. And while screens may work for kids for a while, excessive use of screens often increase children’s moodiness and irritability. And if screens are the primary way kids cope with an anxious mind, then attempts to limit screen time may be met with anger, meltdowns, and attempts to sneak screen time.
Help for Anxious Kids
The following are strategies that can help lower worries, stress, and anxious behaviors.
1. Overcoming the “tricks” of the overanxious mind begins with awareness.
Once you recognize and name your feeling as anxiety, then you can begin to tame your overanxious mind. With awareness, both kids and adults can begin to talk-back to their “worry brain” and take-back control. For example, “Anxiety, I’m not going to let you trick me, I know what you’re doing and I’m in control not you.”
2. Structure your child’s day to increase a sense of predictability and control.
It is easy for a child to feel more anxious if there is no structure in their day. Dr. Scott Cypers recommends families draw up four categories based on your family’s values. List activities based on these values so kids can see them. For example:
- Mind Activities (i.e. for a 6-year-old, learning how to tie a shoe, trivia, board games, brain busters)
- Body Activities (building something with twigs outside, obstacle courses, kicking around a ball, riding your bike or scooter)
- Soul Activities (art, creativity, puzzles, hobbies, music)
- Good Citizen of the House (chores, helping people, walking dog)
Schedule two to four of these activities every day before free or relaxation time.
3. Avoid giving too much reassurance.
While it’s tempting to soothe children with phrases like “Everything’s going to be fine,” children can can become dependent on such comfort, and want to hear it more and more often. If children feel unequipped to soothe themselves outside off a parent’s comfort, then their anxiety may worsen when the parent is unavailable to them. Instead, use phrases such as, “We’re doing all we can,” or “We are working on it.”
A similar concept to “too much reassurance” is a phenomenon called Snowplow Parenting, where parents clear any adversity from their child’s path. Snowplow Parenting can fuel a child’s anxiety about the world. Discussing the virus and other family challenges in age-appropriate ways, can help children learn to deal with adversity and build resilience.
Sometimes parents regularly change a child’s environment so he or she doesn’t need to feel anxious, which can be another dangerous phenomenon called accommodation. With too much accommodation, a child may feel unprepared for uncomfortable situations when mom or dad are not available to reduce the stress. A child may also think their parents don’t see them as strong or brave to handle things on their own.
4. Model calm yourself.
Watch your own emotional reactions in front of your kids, and avoid confiding your big worries with them. Become more aware of your own anxiety with check-ins such as, “How am I doing?” Also manage your own media consumption about COVID-19 or other stressors and notice if and when the constant news cycle may be contributing to your anxiety. Try traditional stress management tools such as exercise, regular sleep, healthy eating, reaching out to friends, working on hobbies, and journaling. Kids usually learn more from your actions than your advice.
5. Avoid priming anxiety.
Parents can contribute to their kid’s anxiety if drawing attention to all the possible dangers to that child such as, “Oh, stay away from that person,” or “Did you wash your hands?” or “Don’t touch that doorknob!” While parents will need redirect children from time to time, a calmer tone of voice can greatly lessen the worry.
6. Look for the positive.
Finally, look for the silver linings. Even anxiety-provoking situations are often accompanied by unexpected blessings. For example, maybe your kids are getting along today, playing games, and laughing together. Maybe the extra time at home due to orders to “shelter in place” gives you and your teen a chance to cook together. In contrast, don’t let expectations for a perfect day together prevent you from seeing the unexpected positives.
If you would like further information on resources or have more questions about anxiety, please reach out to me.
Stay healthy, well, and safe.
The information for this email was gathered and revised using the following sources: