Coping with children’s anxiety over pandemic

With schools closed and parents working from home, when the anxiety starts to creep in, what do you do?

NAMI Delaware and Meghan Walls, pediatric psychologist at Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children, during a livestream Monday evening, sought to give parents and teachers some strategies to cope with anxiety.

“We do try to hone in on different audiences and a specific need and at this point, obviously the need is around COVID,” said Annie Slease, director of advocacy and education for NAMI Delaware. “When we’re thinking about this experience that we’re all having right now, we want parents to have the tools that they can access at the ready to help their children understand what’s going on and to help their children cope.”

Day-to-day life has changed for many people, and Ms. Slease said that it’s important to reframe expectations during this time.

“That’s what tonight’s about: reframing what we expect out of our days, and reframing what we expect out of ourselves,” she said in a separate interview. “How can we move forward compassionately for ourselves, and how can we be productive and forgive ourselves when we’re not? So all of that, I think, matters.”

Dr. Walls added that the skills are just as necessary for parents.

“Parental mental health is just as important, because without that we can’t give kids necessarily the skills and tools they need,” she said.

She noted that the situation across the state and country is not optimal for mental health.

“What I mean by that is when we think about the things that usually sustain things like anxiety, depression, even some behavioral issues, those are things like isolation, not having a sense of time, not having a sense of purpose. And so I think it’s extremely important to focus on mental health right now,” she said, adding, “We actually know that positive mental health and positive physical health are tied together.”

In the livestream, Ms. Slease moderated as Dr. Walls gave several strategies for dealing with anxiety during the pandemic — but these coping mechanisms are also useful under regular circumstances.

With the switch to remote and online learning, Dr. Walls encouraged parents to have their teens come out of their rooms and take a break from screens a couple hours a day, but there will be a learning curve.

“I think that we need to understand that our teenagers are the most social people we know,” she said in the stream. “Maybe not with us, as parents, but they’re used to being able to be at school, be in after school activities, so I actually expect an adjustment period where they’re going to have some downtime.”

To help children and parents, Dr. Walls recommended belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing.

That involves taking slow and low breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, that last about three seconds each. She recommends getting comfortable and sitting back. She noted that it’s good practice to try it laying down or during bedtime routines.

“When I’m doing belly breathing here, I want my belly to rise and fall, not my shoulders,” she said. “It takes some practice. I don’t expect adults or kids in that first time you’re doing this breathing” to get it completely right.

She suggested taking five to 10 minutes a day to practice these techniques.

“Don’t just tell your kid when they’re stressed out to take a deep breath. That’s not helpful. It makes kids frustrated,” she said. “But if you were to say to them, ‘Hey, remember every night we’ve been practicing belly breathing? I really think this would help you right now’ — whole different ball game.”

She also recommended using Youtube to find guided breathing practice, or an app, BioBelly, which can track the deepness of your breathing and gives feedback.

When school and work starts up again, she added, this can be utilized anywhere.

“I think we forget how stressed out we all are, as adults and kids, and how this is different,” she said. “This is a really challenging time period. I think that making sure that we are addressing some of these things are really important.”

Utilizing guided imagery is another technique Dr. Walls suggests.

“Guided imagery does two things. One, it gets you refocused on something else, but two, is it uses something that’s relaxing to you to actually regulate your body,” she said. “Guided imagery is one of the hands down best tools that I use for kids in the evenings.”

During Monday’s livestream, she read aloud a portion of an example that incorporated a beach scene. Different versions are on Youtube and elsewhere, Dr. Walls said, but she encouraged people to write their own.

As a former educator, Ms. Slease noted that it’s a good suggestion for educators.

“I know a couple of high school teachers who use these in their classrooms, so they’ll do a five-minute guided imagery at the end of class,” Dr. Walls said. “I’ve had teenagers come in and say, ‘That’s the best part of my day. It helps me so much to regroup.’”

On the more overtly physical end, Dr. Walls suggested trying progressive muscle relaxation.

“Everybody feels like their stress is in their bodies right now,” she said. “Stress can affect your body.”

From top of the body to the bottom, she suggests tensing up for five seconds and then relaxing. For instance, squeezing your closed hands for five seconds before releasing.

“We don’t know our muscles are tense because we’re just walking around like that,” she said. “We hold so much stress in our bodies every day and we don’t realize that.”

She also urged parents to challenge children’s negative thoughts — or for people to challenge their own negative thoughts.

She used examples like, “This is never going to end,” or “no one is going to like me when I go back to school.”

“What evidence do you have for your thought? You’re trying to figure out, if you’re the detective, is my thought right or not?” she said. “My goal, I always tell parents and kids, is not to prove your thought wrong; it’s to make you flexible. It’s to think about it. That’s all.”

With the list of reasons about why this thought might be correct, Dr. Walls then asks: what’s the evidence against it?

“There is almost always evidence against it,” she said. “Then I ask kids after that, ‘How are you feeling now? Do you feel like your thought was accurate?’ It doesn’t have to be a full therapy session with a parent and a kid. It’s just getting them to think about the alternatives.”

The same goes for adults, she added.

“Sure, part of a thought might be true sometimes. But it’s not the thought that makes it true, it’s the evidence that makes it true, or not true or partly true,” she said.

For parents who may have trouble connecting with teenagers, even without the ongoing pandemic, she suggested sending their teens a text message.

“There’s no reason you can’t send them some of these links in a text and say, ‘Hey, I saw this cool video. You might be interested.’ They’re going to roll their eyes but they’re going to click it anyway because it’s on their phones, and it’s in front of their face,” she said.

She noted that with everyone in the house together, teenagers might be in their rooms for six hours at a time because they are doing learning activities, texting friends and then doing something else.

“Be a little bit gracious with yourself and with your teenagers, too,” she said. “But I think there’s that point where if you’re not hearing from them, you’re having teenagers who are not coming out of their room, who are not coming out for meals, who are not showering any more, let’s find them a provider and have them talk to somebody.”

She added that if people have tried these things and are still struggling, reaching out for help remains important. She noted that many psychologists have telehealth accessibility and Nemours Child Health and NAMI Delaware have resources available.

“Mental health doesn’t take a time out because of a pandemic,” she said.

For information on NAMI’s resources, visit www.namidelaware.org/covid19-resources.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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