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Almost everyone I know has had anxiety creep up in one form or another during this time of self-isolation and quarantine. Not only have our routines completely changed, but so have our relationships, the ways we engage with one another, and in most cases, or economic forecast for the year. We also are dealing with the overwhelming stress and anxiety of dealing with an “invisible” virus that has made us or loved ones sick..and in some cases, we have even dealt with the anger, pain, and confusion of losing friends and loved ones to this new illness – and not being able to be there with or for them the way we should be. These are tough, tough times in so many ways, and it’s totally normal for even the strongest among us to be overwhelmed. So what about the children who are trying to make sense of all of this, when we can’t even make sense of it for ourselves?
Marlowe was doing really well with our “new normal” (if you can even call it that) until about a week ago. All of a sudden she hit a wall with all of this, and her anxiety came on really strong. I will preface this all by saying that she really has never been an anxious kid before, even in the wake of our divorce. She’s had feelings about all of it, for sure, but never that “roaming” brand of anxiety that can land on something and grow roots. About a week ago, Marlowe started getting stomach aches, waking up at night with nightmares, and feeling all kinds of intrusive, “worry thoughts” about everything from scary characters in movies, to fear of COVID-19 and the possibility of dying. It started off with a nervous tummy ache now and then, and then has escalated to her being concerned that every ache and pain is evidence that she has to go to the hospital or that something is really wrong. If pressed for more feelings beyond that, she shares the heartbreaking thoughts she’s having about death, dying, and the uncertainty of the world around her. It’s absolutely excruciating to watch my easy, breezy, fun-loving and giggly girl be so worried and preoccupied.
I had been sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop this entire time, as it’s obviously so far from normal for our kids to be living life this way for nearly two months now. But, now that I’m dealing with my child’s unique brand of anxiety (I think anxiety expresses itself in all of us in varying ways), it’s so complicated and hard to know exactly how to approach her and how to help her. What works for me with my anxiety, hasn’t exactly worked for her, and things that don’t always work for me have been helping her make some baby steps with it.
I thought I would share some methods we have been using as well as some that were recommended to me when I posted about her anxiety on Instagram this week. Watching my daughter struggle with something that I can’t instantly take away has been so hard for me, and it’s been a real lesson in slowing down, focusing my attention on my sweet girl, and allowing her to show and teach me exactly what she needs right now. I know, from talking to other girlfriends with kids, that so many other children are going through similar feelings right now– and that our restrictions on where we can go and how we can cope with these feelings are making it really hard for parents to combat the anxiety for them. I would love to hear your own experiences with your kids’ worries or anxieties so that you can add your voice to the community and help others who might need even more suggestions. Thank you in advance!
Anxiety Coping Mechanisms For Kids
1. Worry Airplanes
I’ll start with the method that has been the most effective for Marlowe! After hearing some specific “scenarios” that were really worrying Marlowe, I sat down with her to do a little exercise. On a blank sheet of paper, she drew the worry for me in great detail. We talked about what the worry was (there was everything from her getting sick with COVID-19 and dying, to a scary snake she saw in a nature documentary a few months ago) and then I watched and asked her questions about it while she drew. Once she was finished with the picture, we decided to either cover the image with hearts (for the worries that involved people or things we love) or with X’s (for the nasty, scary things we want to never think about again). We covered the images with all different colored hearts or X’s. Then I folded each Worry Page in to a paper airplane! We went out on to our porch together, said a little prayer while holding the airplane, and then she launched it right off the porch “so the wind can carry that worry to outer space”. I explained to her that the most important thing for her to do is to share her worries with a grown up like me or her dad, so that we can carry that worry for her and that she can think about happy easy things that kids deserve to think about. She loved this exercise and I noticed a big difference that day!
2. Breathing Exercises
I have used a couple of different meditation apps to do kid-centric, guided breathing exercises with Marlowe. I will say that they didn’t hold her attention that well, but overall they helped us open the convo around deep breathing and mindfulness. I come back to these deep breaths with her when she’s having a particularly hard moment, and I find that it helps. The way that works the best for us is if I hold her on my lap, or lay beside her, and breathe with her so that she can piggyback off of my breath. Otherwise, I find that she doesn’t hold out her exhales as long or take as deep breaths.
One method sans app you can try: Have your child lay down and put their hand on their belly. Have them slowly breathe in for three seconds through their nose, feeling their belly expand like a balloon. Ask them to imagine their balloon to have a certain color and shape. Maybe it’s a heart balloon or a happy star! Then have them exhale for five seconds through their mouth, slowly, and imagine their balloon deflating again. Repeat this five or six times, or for up to a minute.
3. Fact Checking
A lot of Marlowe’s worries had to do with fears that are absolutely improbable. One by one, we went through and really addressed each and every one of them. We even got on a digital FaceTime session with one of her Pediatricians so Marlowe could ask questions about her health and body, and put her fears to rest. Now if she brings up fears that were addressed by her doctor, I remind her that it’s her doctor’s job to keep her healthy and that her doctor isn’t worried about her at all.
4. Q&A about COVID-19
I had told our pediatrician how confused I was by Marlowe’s recent worries about contracting the virus, since we really haven’t had the news on or been talking much about it in front of her on purpose. Our doctor said this approach may have backfired! Because we hadn’t had an in-depth Q&A with her about COVID-19, her mind was racing to come up with information and facts on its own, and lots of it was scarier and more confusing than it needed to be. I asked her if she had questions, answered them as best I could, and I also showed both of my kids this Town Hall that Sesame Street did with CNN. They both liked hearing the opinions of doctors addressing the concerns of some of her favorite characters.
5. Lavender Essential Oil
I’ve been using Lavender Essential oil in a diffuser in Marlowe and Major’s room at night – and it’s been really helping to calm her down and help her sleep recently. Plus, she loves the subtle light it lets off. Almost like an extra night light!
6. Good Old Fashioned Empathy
Sometimes, Marlowe just can’t get certain worries out of her head. I sit with her, hug her so tight, and tell her how sorry I am that she’s so upset and so worried. I ask her to tell me exactly how she’s feeling, and I just listen. Then I look her right in the eye and tell her how much I love her, that I’m always here for her, and that she’s OK. Sometimes we all need somebody to listen without trying to offer their solution!
When I reached out to my online community for help, people suggested several different books for helping kids cope with anxiety. I’m linking them here!
- “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety” by Tamar Chansky
- Scholastic.com Corona Virus Workbook
- “What To Do When You Worry Too Much” by Dawn Huebner, PhD
- “In My Heart: A Book Of Feelings” by Jo Witek
- “Hey Awesome!” By Karen Young
- “You Are A Gardener” Book and blog
- “The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain
- “Ruby’s Worry” by Tom Percival