I was drifting off to sleep in my Fort Worth hotel room just last week after the convention I was speaking at was closed down in the middle of everything because the city had issued an order banning all gatherings of more than 100 people.
I heard my teen clear his throat from the other side of the room.
“What if they don’t let us leave? What if we’re quarantined here in this hotel because we’ve actually contracted COVID-19 already and we never get home to see Dad, Molly, Logan, and Isaac again? What if WE die from this? What if THEY do… back in Ohio, with us never saying goodbye?”
Childhood anxiety is tricky, friends.
That sweet boy hasn’t needed the help from his therapist in years. He’s had his anxiety well under control, and has managed to come up with a toolkit of coping mechanisms that work for him like she and I have coached him to have all those years ago.
But we’re in the midst of weirdness, and weird times bring up all sorts of unease in our anxious kiddos. It’s up to us — even while attempting to hold our own worry dragons at bay — to give our kiddos some peace, calm, and security in these times.
First, avoid reassuring your child. In that dark hotel room, it would have been easy for me to tell my son that everything was going to be okay, but the truth was, I didn’t know that for sure. When we left for Texas earlier that week, people were starting to get nervous about COVID-19 and its rapid spread, but things weren’t being cancelled all over — just a few things here and there were called off. By the end of that week — only a few days later — many states were declaring a state of emergency and there were rumors flying about potential travel bans.
His anxious thoughts were real and valid.
When your kids struggle with childhood anxiety, they need some simple strategies from which to draw when they’re having tough moments. I call this their anxiety toolkit and the S.T.O.P. strategy of mindfulness is one thing you can teach them now so that they have it at their fingertips when they need it.
Stop: Have them stop whatever they’re thinking about or doing. During times of anxiety there’s a hormone dump that is putting stress on their systems — they’re literally feeling like they’re in a fight for their life. Having them pause their thinking or doing gives them a chance to regroup and break out of the fight-flight-freeze response.
Take a Breath: Deep breaths can counteract the response their body is having. It provides the opportunity to slow down, take things in, and recover.
Observe: Look at your kiddo. Have them assess themselves. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What fears do they have in that moment? Validate those and empathize with them. Your child wants to be heard and seen. When they’re struggling with anxiety, they need to be seen and heard. This is scary, friends. Your child does not want to feel anxious, but they DO want to know that you’re there for them.
Proceed: Once you and your child are calm again, decide if what they were doing should continue and proceed. Take back up the project, go on and try to fall asleep, or discontinue what was happening that caused the stress response. Curl up on the couch and watch a movie instead. Whatever you both decide, though, remember that you are the perfect soft place for them to land. You’re their person, and it’s because you’re so safe that they feel comfortable sharing their anxiety.
Keep Some Normal
Whether you’ve always homeschooled or are now doing a strange kind of pandemic-schooling with packets or online lessons from your child’s school district, you are not doing anything you normally do right now.
We’ve homeschooled since my oldest (now 17) was seven. This is nothing like normal homeschooling. Our weekly co-op hasn’t met in two weeks. Theater club is cancelled. Musicals that were set to open last week have been called off. Voice lessons are being done via Zoom. Playdates with friends are now taking place using videoconferencing software while the kids play board games and build LEGO with their friends on camera.
It’s strange and unsettling to not be going to meet up with friends at the park, museums, playgrounds, or pool. And we’re going a little stir-crazy because homeschool for us doesn’t actually mean we stay home.
When your world has been turned upside down, it’s important to keep some things normal for your anxious kids.
Do they normally see their friends at co-op on Monday mornings? Why not gather everyone on a Zoom call and play a game of charades? Later, eat a picnic lunch on the deck or in the family room since it’s the day you pack lunches normally?
All the things that can’t happen are disappointments, but can be turned around for good. Have your kiddos perform their musical numbers over FaceTime for friends and family.
Keep bedtimes and wake up times the same (or similar) if you can. Kids need sleep — especially if they’re battling anxiety. Two of my kiddos who experience childhood anxiety struggle with sleep, too, so we have been listening to audiobooks together and having a cup of tea in the evenings to wind down and set ourselves up for good sleep.
Do what you can, but remember that this is not going to last forever, so if things need to be changed up, it’s really okay.
Limit the News
My kids are twice-exceptional. This means that the gifted part of their brain NEEDS to know what’s going on so that they can process things well.
It also means that they are asynchronous and can understand things they here at an intellectual level that is often higher that their emotional level can handle. This means that they will be scared when they hear the word pandemic.
A parent of a gifted or twice-exceptional kiddo can’t just tell their child that things will be alright. That’s not enough. They don’t want to be placated. But, we don’t need to share ever news story or highlight ever new document case or death.
I’m always an advocate for telling our kids the answers to the questions they ask, but I’m an even bigger advocate for knowing your child. You DO know what your child can handle, so share with limits.
Keep the TV off.
Stream movies or playlists without allowing the news or commercials to interrupt.
Limit unattended computer time.
Help them, if they’re older, discern between sources of information. The “teen group Discord chat” might not be the most trustworthy source of information. Teach them that you’ll help them find the answers to the questions they have.
Then do it. But don’t overdo it.
Build New Rituals
This is the perfect time to start new family rituals. You’re home with your kids. Set a new dinner time. Try new recipes together. Rate them. Clean up the kitchen together, then pop some popcorn and watch a show you’ve always wanted to see.
Go for a daily walk around the neighborhood. Wave to people you’ve only driven past.
Make up the menus for the week together, letting each kiddo plan a day to be in charge of.
Read books together.
Play a new board game every night.
As you probably figured out, my son and I did make it back home to Ohio where we’ve spent the last week trying on our new normal. With co-ops, plays, and meet-ups cancelled for the kids, and four speaking events cancelled for me, we’ve had a lot of time together all of the sudden.
Childhood anxiety has been high, but we’re in our safe place, and we are constantly working through the toolkit that we’ve built over the years. It’s a work-in-progress, friends. If your kiddo with childhood anxiety knows you’re there for them, figuring this out alongside them, you’ll both be okay.
Trust yourself. Trust them.
You’ve got this.
You can get your hands your own copy of The Anxiety Toolkit, a brand-new resource created with families in mind. You’ll get a card deck loaded with 96 strategies for helping calm your child’s worries at home, out on the town, before bedtime, and with mindfulness, along with a few fun surprise fidgets and a link to a resource page loaded with additional articles, book lists, and game ideas for helping your kiddos manage their childhood anxiety.