by Rachel Ehmke
Checking in with kids
When kids are feeling anxious, it may or may not be clear to parents. “We shouldn’t be looking for just one thing,” says Dr. Bubrick. “We should be ready to handle a variety of different expressions of anxiety.” Anxiety could look like:
- Reassurance-seeking (Are we going to be okay? Is Grandpa going to be okay?)
- Reluctance to separate from parents
- Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
- Moodiness and irritability
- Tantrums or meltdowns
- Trouble sleeping
Kids may not always be able to express how they are feeling. For younger children, Dr. Bubrick suggests using a feelings chart instead of saying “Tell me how anxious you are.” With a feelings chart, which you can find on the internet, you can ask kids to point to the feeling they are having now. Parents can also use a traffic light chart to help kids share how intense their feeling is — a red light means they feel overwhelmed, a yellow light is medium and a green light is okay.
For kids who are more able to articulate how they are feeling, Dr. Bubrick says it is better to ask what psychologists call “forced choice questions.” “If you ask a vague question you’re going to get a vague answer,” he says. “So instead of asking ‘How was your day?’ which is pretty vague, maybe ask, “Did your anxiety get in the way of you having a good day today?” he suggests.
If you’re wondering about a teenager, Dr. Bubrick recommends talking about yourself first. “You can say something like, “I saw this article today and it made me wonder about this and that. Did you see something like that? What’s your reaction to it?’”
Helping anxious kids
Structure their day. As parents we often think that setting boundaries for a child is a way to make our lives easier, but in fact kids thrive on them, too. It is easy for children to get bored or fretful if they are facing a day without structure, and anxiety can thrive under those circumstances.
Make sure that you are structuring their days when they are cooped up at home. Alternate chores or schoolwork with more fun activities and periods of free time. As restrictions lift and summer sets in, be sure to incorporate safe, socially distant outdoor activities as well. Make sure kids are still getting the chance to exercise and socialize with friends via video chats and social media if they are on it.
Avoid giving too much reassurance. For kids of all ages, Dr. Bubrick recommends avoiding getting into a cycle of providing too much reassurance. Kids can come to rely on the reassurance and want to hear it more and more often — and when a parent isn’t able to give them complete reassurance their anxiety can worsen.
Instead, remind kids of the things they are doing to take care of themselves (like washing their hands and staying indoors) and encourage them to focus on being in the moment. They can practice mindfulness activities alone or with you.
Model calm yourself. Don’t share your worries with your children, and if you are feeling anxious, find a way to ground yourself. “After this crisis is over, your kids are going to walk away from this having learned things,” says Dr. Bubrick. “What will they have learned from you in the way you handled this? Will they look back and say ‘Wow, I’m really impressed with how Mom and Dad held it together?’ Or are they going to walk away and think the world is a scary place?”
Look for the positive. Finally, Dr. Bubrick recommends looking for the silver linings. “I spoke to a family this morning on Skype and they said, ‘You know, our kids are all together for the first time in months and they’re playing games together and they’re laughing together and we’re spending time together.’ So there are silver linings, you just have to look for them.”