All of these extended stay-at-home orders, school changes, uncertain summer plans and predictions for the fall leave my head spinning. As an adult, I can talk it out and find outlets for directing my energy and emotions. As a mom of two young boys, I am filtering what I share with them; planning a meaningful summer and also appropriately preparing them for whats to come. But the challenging part is knowing how to manage anxiety in my children during this pandemic.
As a pediatric occupational therapist I am using my clinical background knowledge to manage anxiety in my children during COVID-19. Well really, managing anxiety for my whole family — including myself.
As we navigate these uncharted waters, we all worry. We worry for our physical health, our financial resolve, and the mental toll this is taking on us all. There are concerns about academic regression in our kids. Yet additionally, I am more scared of the social emotional toll that COVID-19 is taking on our mental health. I am worried for our society, for our children, for humankind.
We are social creatures. Our youngest children are supposed to be learning from each other, in social and group settings. Not under lockdown, in quarantine. Right now they are at home, watching their stressed out parents try to figure this out.
So as an OT, I know that routines are important. Getting up and having a rhythm to the day, and maintaining a consistent bedtime routine keeps kids on track. As school winds down for my kids, it will be important to find a balance for them as we head into a summer that got turned upside down.
My studies in occupational therapy remind me of some basic tenets for how to manage anxiety in my children during this pandemic. Here are my thoughts:
Meaningful occupations makeup our lives
Whether its work, or play, or school, or even housekeeping – I am trying to embrace these moments as teachable, and important to our well-being. I’m putting my kids to “work”, and taking the time (that we never seemed to have) to get all the chores done. I am here to remind you that a child’s occupation is to PLAY. Play without the constraints of structure and adult direction. Right now children need time and space to be kids, to process their emotions, and to be as wild and free as they can.
Leisure activities are incredibly important
Finding a creative outlet, physical release or connection to nature can help carry us through these difficult times. I love to play tennis, it is both physical and social and requires all of my attention for that hour of court time. My husband loves to mow the grass, he says its something about the instant gratification of watching the rows of blades look neat. My mother loves to garden, she weeds and feeds and celebrates growth. In these times of uncertainty, having a meaningful leisure activity is good for mental health.
In thinking about managing the mental health of my own children, I know I need to take care of myself as well. Some of the areas of well being that I tend to focus on are:
- Physical needs – I love that my Apple watch reminds me to keep moving. We all know that we need to move our bodies every day for a number of reasons. During home school, my boys alternated between daily walks and yard time. Its been a challenge to be creative during lockdown to maintain physical health. Kids need to move even more than we do.
- Mental needs. – I like to take walks after the kids go to bed and catch up with a friend on the phone. I am encouraging my oldest to journal, and write letters to friends. There are some great mindfulness apps for kids that have free versions to explore. At our house we have been dabbling in some Cosmic Kids Yoga and practicing deep breathing techniques. I am teaching my kids to notice when they are starting to unravel, and use sensory strategies to support their emotional regulation.
- Nature – At our house, my rule is that green time equals screen time. Our kids have been on screens too much throughout these past 3 months. Unless its a total downpour, we are outside everyday. There are plenty of studies to document the positive affects of immersing yourself in nature. While its been challenging to find parks and trails that remain open; this has been at the top of my priority list. I know that the impact of a quiet afternoon constructing “nature” boats to sail downstream is priceless for my boys.
- Routines – Even though its such a gift not to pack school lunches and rush around like a headless chicken in the morning, it is important to keep our internal clocks on schedule. Sleep and wake routines remain important, even though we can relax a little that school is ending. Nutritionally, I make sure they eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and drink all the water. Children thrive on predictability, even through these unpredictable times. Even when things feel so out of control, having set routines (in can offer them reassurance and calm.
- Calming tools – As part of my therapy practices for sensory clients, I encourage parents to create a “calm down” tool box with their children. These are go-to activities that offer some reprieve and focus, helping to promote a calm and regulated state. Simply, it can be a list of familiar sensory-based tasks, or a literal box of small items to help calm. Bubbles, putty/play-doh, a soft toy and a favorite picture book are often included in my recommendations. See here for some other scree-free activities to wind-down at home. Also, check out these messy play recipes – tapping into the tactile system is incredibly calming for children.
- Positivity – I am personally trying not to get caught up in the cancellations and closures of our world right now. Everything is different, and I don’t know when or if we will ever be able to go back to how things used to be. In the meantime, I am embracing these helpful reminders myself, and with my children.