Many parents struggle with anxiety about their children’s wellbeing. I hear from parents a lot that as soon as their child was born the worry and anxiety started to kick in. There’s always this little piece in the back of their minds that tugs at them -- “Will my child be okay? Will things work out for them? What if…” If these questions have come up for you, then this blog may be helpful!
I was asked about how to help parents help their children manage the stress of the coronavirus when parents, themselves, do not know how things will work out. The coronavirus has altered our lives in a rapid way so there felt like a dramatic change to life and a lot of uncertainty about how and if things will “get back to normal.”
Stress Response and Anxiety
When something happens suddenly, it causes a stress response and anxiety. In many ways, this is adaptive. It is your brain’s way of keeping you safe and protecting you. It’s adaptive, too, that you felt worry and anxiety about whether and how your kids will be okay when they were first born. It is part of what kept your children alive, safe, and well.
For the majority of people, the anxiety and worry they experience is a normal adaptive response to stressors. For example, only around 3% of people in the US experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder (i.e., excessive worry that they cannot control about a variety of topics). The adaptive worry and anxiety springs you into action. If you got right to learning more about the coronavirus, how to wear a mask, what the procedures would be in public, with school, and at work, etc., then chances are you were adapting. Then there became a point where you read or listened to everything there was to know, and experts weren’t giving many more details or were inconsistent in what they were reporting, which made it hard to trust what they were saying. The anxiety and worry about all the things you didn’t and still don’t know likely started to set in.
So now you’re wondering how to help calm your kids’ and teens’ anxiety when yours is roaring. First, let me point out that you're still adapting to the stressors of the pandemic. So take a second to thank yourself for being so adaptable! Now, here’s some things to think about and try.
Practice Tolerating Distress
The nagging feeling of uncertainty is causing you to worry. Worry becomes excessive and unhelpful when instead of springing to action, you get stuck continuously worrying. At first it feels like the worry is helping you be prepared. Take a critical look at that for a minute. What is worrying helping you do? If it is consuming most of your day, making it hard for you to sleep at night, getting in the way of enjoying yourself doing things you normally love to do, then that worry is not helping you do anything productive. Instead, it is getting in the way of you feeling distress. That sounds helpful, right? It is a temporary help - typically only lasts so long as you worry, but the worry itself makes you feel distressed. And what’s unhelpful is you’re distressed about the worry and not the thing that actually makes you distressed in the first place. In this case, the anxiety about not knowing whether things will be okay. This is where distress tolerance skills can come in handy.
Allow yourself to imagine the worst case scenario, but don’t solve it. Just let yourself feel sad and scared. If you stick with it long enough your anxiety will start to decrease. Accept that you don’t have all the answers. Remember when your children were toddlers and in the questioning everything phase? Did you always have the answer to every single thing they asked you about? Probably not. How did you handle it then? You may have looked up the answer or simply said, “I don’t know.”
Another strategy to try is to challenge your irrational thoughts in that worst case scenario. For example, what is the likelihood that you will never get to be around your loved ones again?
Show Your Teens It’s Okay to Not Know
This can look like a lot of different things depending on what works for you. You may feel overwhelmed and take a break, go for a walk, take some slow deep breaths, go for a run, practice yoga, watch your favorite TV show, listen to music, cook, or play mindless games on your cell phone. Whatever strategies you use to provide a short relief when you feel overwhelmed.
Once you have temporarily lowered your stress, you get right back to doing whatever it is you were doing before. Keep up with your routines, doing chores, working, doing school work, or whatever your regular responsibilities are. By doing this, you show your kids that even when you’re anxious or stressed about not knowing how things will work out, you can keep going. This helps provide a sense of safety and security for yourself and your kids.
Another way you can help your teen, is to label your emotions -- simply saying “I’m worried about how things will work out because I don’t have all the answers. I am choosing to manage my worry by sticking with routines, by doing fun activities with you, by picking up a new hobby, by decluttering the house…” Labeling your emotion and explaining how you are coping, gives your kids permission to also feel whatever feelings they are feeling and by explaining how you are coping, gives your kids ideas on how to help themselves feel better.
Find the Silver Linings and Regularly Share Them With Your Kids
A lot of things changed when the pandemic hit. Some of those things were unpleasant, while other things were really nice. For example, maybe you got to spend more time with your kids. Maybe you didn’t have to put on dress pants or commute to work while fighting traffic every day. Maybe you started a new hobby that you had always wanted to try but never had time for. Maybe you rekindled relationships or friendships because you felt you had more time. Point out whatever those silver linings were for you and your loved ones to your kids. Help them see the bright side of things.
Maybe things weren’t always great. For example, maybe Grandma got COVID-19 and was in the hospital and that was really scary. Then she got better and because she had already gotten COVID-19 you and your kids were able to go visit her way before you would have been able to if she had not gotten COVID-19. That’s a silver lining. Maybe you missed a special life event. Maybe the worst thing you could imagine happened to you and your family. Reflecting on how it turned out and finding the blessings in disguise can really help you and your kids cope with the unknown. Maybe you lost your job, but then you got to spend more time with your kids. Maybe you couldn’t afford the mortgage on your 3 bedroom house so your family had to move into a 2 bedroom apartment. Now that you have moved, you find that you see your teen more because there are less spaces to escape to in the apartment.
Ask for Help if You Need it
CHI Health has mental health professionals who focus on people of all ages. Visit chihealth.com/behavioral to connect with a CHI Health mental health provider. We offer in-person and virtual therapy sessions with our team of licensed mental health therapists.