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How to support children and manage anxiety during social distancing

Updated: Oct 11, 2023



a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

It's safe to say that almost the entire population can identify with the above definition. You don't need to be reminded about how everything has changed - you're feeling it and living it, and our kids are, too! An important caveat - for the purposes of this article, when I reference "anxiety" I'm referring to the feeling above, not clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorder. The following does not replace individualized medical or therapeutic advice. Whether your child tended to struggle with anxiety before the school closures and social distancing or is experiencing feelings of anxiousness and difficulty coping (aren't we all?!) now, my hope is that the information can empower you to manage daily life as we know it with as many tools as possible.

I have personal and professional experience with anxiety. Have you heard the joke about one fish saying to the other, "water is nice today" and the other one saying, "what is water?" Or something like that. Anyway, the water was my anxiety in that little analogy. I had no other way of being or feeling, and for the most part my coping mechanisms, while still not healthy, were positive by societal standards. It wasn't until by accident (on God's purpose), I started receiving MNRI on myself, by way of my coursework, hands-on practice with colleagues, and later some sessions for myself, that I realized just how tightly-wound I was. As the layers of my anxious-coping-fear onion began to peel away, I saw the water for what it was. I reflected back on my life and saw how much of my behavior was my little 4-year-old brain using immature strategies in order to keep myself "safe" or at least feeling as safe as I could.

My background is in pediatric Occupational Therapy - I did that for five years, and then began to be trained in the Masgutova Method of Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration. More on that later, but the important thing to share is that my son is the reason I became trained in the method. He has come so far thanks to the method, and many of his challenges in the past dealt with not feeling safe or grounded in his body. So, I speak from experience as a parent and as a professional. Many of the children that come to see me struggle immensely with anxiety.

Let's get to the practical tips, but stay with me to the end because it's important to understand some big-picture ideas so that you can understand and better manage each individual scenario that may come up. The more general knowledge you have, the easier it is to adapt and apply that to your specific situation with your unique child, in these very unique times.

1. Know your audience('s brain)

Whether they are anxious or not, keep in mind what is developmentally appropriate for your child's age. In uncertain times, this is even more important. Their nervous system "bucket" is already pretty full, so we need to assume that they are already operating a little under max capacity for their age. This bullet-point is first because it will factor into each subsequent tip below. We have to consider age, developmental level, and time of day into the number of choices and amount of autonomy to expect. For example, regardless of circumstances, I do not ask my 5 and 3 year old, "What do you want for dinner?" That open-ended question, for their age, is developmentally inappropriate the way it is phrased. It's also opening the door to conflict. Kids that age can't be expected to know what is best for them to eat. In this example, we can modify that question by asking, "would you like rice or pasta with your chicken tonight?" (If we want to give a choice, that is.) More on choices below.

Another important developmental consideration is the amount of executive functioning we are expecting. On a good day, kids struggle in this area. Executive functioning, via the frontal cortex not fully developed until age 24! Your late elementary schooler and early middle school children are still learning how to plan, problem-solve, remember, and prioritize. Stress affects these functions immensely - you could even say completely - so keep in mind what to expect on a normal day, then build-in extra supports for now.

2. Choices, choices

True or false: Kids experiencing anxiety need more choices to feel in control over their environment. Usually, this is false. It's hard to make totally blanket statements about this, but in general, constant questions and decisions overwhelm these kids' already stressed-out brains. Two positive choices can be great for general routines when times are calm and running smoothly. Think, "It's time to get dressed. You can wear the red shirt or the blue shirt" for younger kids and, "choose a short sleeve shirt and shorts" for older kids. Choices are NOT for the later parts of the day, or as a technique when things start falling apart. When the whining and stalling and melting begins, stop with the choices. Now is the time to take the lead and provide clear, concise directions.

The formula for giving directions to a tired, distracted, or stressed child is: "Name, direction." It can be a hard habit to break, because we find ourselves wanting to "soften the blow" of the directions by giving fluff. Fluff I catch myself saying is, "Hey, bud, can you go ahead and put your socks on for me please?" It can feel a little harsh at first to instead say, "Johnny, put your socks on." But as Brene Brown says, clear is kind. From an auditory processing perspective, it's much easier for kids to decode what we are asking when we follow that formula. It also lessens the chances of repeating ourselves, often in an increasingly frustrated tone. (I speak from experience).

So, in general, fewer, sometimes zero choices are easier on our kids' brains, and by extension, easier on us. Imagine this scenario:

When we are tired at the end of a long day, the last thing we want is to be presented with a question, much less a series of questions or choices. Most days I'd rather walk in to find a meal on the table than for my husband to ask me where I want to order takeout, and what about dessert, and what did I want to do on the weekend. Do you want Thai? Pizza? That new burger place that just opened up? That line of questioning usually ends with, "Just pick for me!" This is essentially what our kids are saying, in so many words, when they melt down, change their minds repeatedly, or stall out from lots of choices.

3. Review the game-plan

Go over what's coming up for the day (preschool and early elementary age) or next few days/week (elementary to high school) in appropriate sized pieces. Refer back to tip number one, here! Most preschoolers and early elementary kids like to have a daily schedule at the most. A whole week is overwhelming and confusing. Know developmental level, too, because my 5-year-old needs even less information. He does well with a "first-then" or the next two, maybe three activities.

Anchor these activities with either a written or combo of written/picture schedule. This is important: it does not matter what your schedule looks like. Even if your child can't read yet, just a written schedule with maybe a stick figure or rough cartoon drawing will do.

Visual schedules do two key things: One, they make an abstract concept of time/plan and make it concrete and clear. And two, they take the pressure off parents (a bit). When the next task is just rattled off from our mouths to their ears, there's more likelihood for balking. When there's a physical paper or picture for them to reference independently, we're a little removed from the equation and there tends to be less conflict.

4. Start with movement and make it routine

There are a lot of caveats for this one. Refer back to tips 1-3 and make sure to read through to the end. These suggestions are meant to help, so if they don't - for whatever reason - leave them. The goal is to improve, not stress, so take of the following what works for your family.

I often recommend a minimum daily walk of at least 20 minutes for preschool children and 30-40 minutes for older children and adults. It is brain-resetting and accesses the Automatic Gait Reflex which is our built-in system reboot. It's free, it's (usually) easy and it's very effective. Walking is different from bike riding, exercise, or playing outside even. Walking accesses the unique reflex pattern in the brain which is why I recommend it as a separate exercise.

Choose some kind of movement to begin your schooling/academics. We start with a walk, then come in for snack, and get to our school work. Before we sit down, we also do a quick whole body warm-up that takes less than five minutes. The warm-up can be anything from a quick tap of all the joints and a couple arm circles to a sequence of yoga poses to a more complex Brain Gym style movement routine. The biggest function of our kids' brains is to process movement information. The warm-up will help to switch gears and focus attention much better than just sitting down to work.

When we make the warm-up routine, it creates a rhythm in our kids brains, so that when they do the movements, it primes the system for seated work and is more of an expectation. This is another reason, in the beginning especially, the visual schedule helps.

5. Choose screen time wisely

There is a hierarchy of amount of stimulation and brain (behavioral) effects depending on the type of screen time and device. Don't worry! You won't hear me recommend zero screen time - not right now! I fully understand and am living the challenges of working from home, distance learning, and maintaining sanity. However, these guidelines should help you minimize the negative effects like tantrums, hyperactivity, dependence and general behavioral struggles.

Choosing screens: when possible, choose the largest screen, with the slowest pace of content. The larger the screen (think TV mounted on a wall), the fewer negative effects on posture and breathing. Posture and breathing will change children and adult's mood, memory and general brain state. When a child watches a smaller, handheld screen like a phone or tablet, often their posture is hunched over, they are very close to the device, and the head is down. In this case, the visual system gets overloaded and locked into a freeze response. The breathing pattern moves to shallower, less rhythmical pattern, and there is often breath-holding. Studies have shown there is a phenomenon called screen apnea, where people tend to hold their breath while interacting with a screen, and that the smaller the device, the more negative effect on mood and confidence.

Type of media: Games and apps, even educational ones are often designed to be addictive. Developers use the same techniques to keep kids playing as slot machines. The intermittent rewards give little hits of dopamine and keep them locked in, ready for that next reward.

TV shows with real people (not animated) with slower pace, less frequent screen changes, and overall lower activity level are ideal. For younger kids, programs similar to Mr. Rogers and Barney are great. For older kids, choose a TV show or movie with a set beginning and end and pay attention to how rapidly the scene changes. The faster the pace, the more challenging the transition away from TV, and the more negative effects on attention. Set the limits before turning on the program, have kids verbalize understanding of how much and what's happening after TV is turned off.

Extra tips for setting up a home-learning environment:

Ergonomics matter, especially if there are any motor challenges. When possible, choose a chair that allows your child's feet to be flat on the floor, sitting at a table that is about an inch or two higher than elbow height while seated and arms are at sides. If you don't have a table and chair that allows for this, experiment with different arrangements around the house, including lying on the belly with the paper on a hard floor, or a clipboard.

If you want to, switch it up and add movements to academics. Movement anchors and helps with memory, and keeps things interesting! (Again, if you feel motivated to do so!)

Some movement ideas:

-Bear walk across the room, look at the sight word/math equation/spelling word, don't repeat/answer/spell until you bear walk or crab walk all the way back to start. (Building working and short term memory)

-Whack-a-word: using post-it-notes spread out on a wall and a pool noodle, call out letter sounds/phonemes/sight words/spelling words/numbers/answers to dictated math problems and have your child whack the right post-it note!

Above all else, prioritize keeping your cup full (as much as possible)

This job of parenting is no easy task. With the added challenge of having a child who is anxious, it can seem like too much to manage. Add to it a pandemic, trying to work from home, grocery shortages?! It's a lot. But, I've seen it over and over again, in myself and in my clients. The more grounded and at peace we are with ourselves, the more available we are for our children. So finding what that looks like for you, right now, is challenging for sure. But absolutely worthwhile.

The hardest part here is making the decision to prioritize ourselves instead of only pouring into our kids. If you have a child who is feeling anxious, or has struggled for a while with sensory processing challenges, what they need from you is your consistent and calm energy. Calm is contagious. If we can foster a feeling of control over our own inner-state regardless of how our children are doing, it does a few things. One, it will have a ripple effect because moms and dads set the tone for the day. Two, it preserves our ability to respond to the next challenge that presents itself. And, most importantly, it sends the message that we can handle their big emotions, and their big emotions are safe. I can only do that when my proverbial cup is (mostly) full.

Healing is a journey in kids too, and we need to do everything in our power to be ready to guide them through the next hurdle. When something crops up again and we have a full tank, emotionally speaking, we don't feel defeated and knocked back. We can handle these challenges in stride only when we are taking care of ourselves.

One thing I've discovered during this time is that my kids directly benefit from watching me spend time doing something that brings me joy. When I'm doing a yoga video, or a dance video, or coloring a page out of their coloring book (the bar is low right now), typically they either join in or become more immersed in their own play. And I also need that 30-40 minute walk by myself to access my own brain-reset.

Don't forget to give yourself grace. There will be hard days. I have had days I forget almost all of the above, so this is a reminder to myself as well. We are under immense stress and it's important to remember what stress does to our executive functioning and ability to access our higher brain centers! I feel confident that we can help lift each-other up during these difficult times. Praying for all of your families, and wishing you well.

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