7 ways parents can manage anxiety amid coronavirus

March 17, 2020
7 ways parents can manage anxiety amid coronavirus

The novel coronavirus has taken over the news and our lives. Much of the American economy is shut down, and that means millions of kids are out of school while millions of parents are struggling to figure out what to do next. If the COVID-19 outbreak is making you want to hide in a closet and cry for an hour where your kids can’t see you, you certainly aren’t alone. 

“There are a lot of unknowns with this virus, which can lead to catastrophic thinking,” says Lisa Wilke, a psychologist and clinic director of Center for Mental Health and Wellness in Blaine, Minnesota. “People may fear the unknown, fear getting sick or fear dying. These are primal fears and often come up when perceived threats occur.”

Now add in the stress of suddenly having to become a home-schooling parent overnight plus scrambling for child care, learning to work from home or feeling uncertainty about the future of a job, and you have the recipe for a parental freakout. 

So how do parents manage their own anxiety in the time of coronavirus? How do we keep it from leaking out and affecting our kids? Take a few deep breaths. You can do this. Here’s how. 

1. Do be gentle with yourself

While we wash our hands and cough into tissues, there are a lot of unknowns about the coronavirus.

“I have a whole lot on my mind ... wondering about the future,” says Kim Hildenbrand, a mom of three from Skagit County, Washington. “How hard will our community, state and country be hit by coronavirus? How can the economy take this? Will the kids go back to school this year?”

Like many parents, Hildenbrand describes herself as “more on edge” with no answers in sight. 

The first thing you can do is recognize that anxiety is very normal right now, says Jill Gross, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Seattle. 

“Our sense of safety and security is tied to life being predictable and controllable,” Gross says. “In this case, there just really isn’t much we can do. We’re walking around with this fear. Even in the most healthy, well-adjusted person, that can cause anxiety.”

2. Do talk to your kids

It can be tempting to keep kids completely in the dark, but most children are seeing a disruption in their routine. Day cares and schools are closing. More parents are working from home or shuffling kids to relatives or friends for child care in order to work without their normal support systems. They know something is up. 

They can also read parents’ moods, Gross says. 

“Kids are really good at absorbing their parents’ emotional energy but not really good at interpreting it,” she says. 

So while kids can sense their parents are stressed, without direct conversations, they’re left to guess at what’s going on, and sometimes they can turn that inward, thinking “Mommy must be upset because I made a mess” or “Daddy is mad at me.”

Conversations with kids should be calm and age-appropriate, Wilke says. You can explain that there’s a virus going around, mentioning it’s like a cold in that it can cause people to cough and that it’s important to wash our hands and cough into our elbows. These are best practices that kids should be adopting in general. 

“When your children have questions, answer with developmentally appropriate answers,” Wilke says. “Do not provide so much information that you overwhelm them. Stick with answering what they want to know.”

If they ask why they can’t go to school or can’t see grandma right now, explain that most kids who get COVID-19 have mild symptoms, but sometimes older adults will have a harder time with the disease and you want to keep everyone safe. The goal, Gross says, is to “give them the facts without the fear.” 

3. Don’t talk about COVID-19 in front of the kids

Wait a second. Isn’t this the opposite of what we just said? Nope! There’s a difference between talking to your kids about the coronavirus and talking about it in front of them. 

“Kids look to us to set the tone for how they should feel about things,” Gross says. “Kids want to know somebody is in charge and somebody is taking care of everything.”

Role-modeling calm behavior is important, and anxious conversations about the lack of toilet paper at your grocery store or the latest person in your town to be diagnosed can set a tone of fear.

It’s good to get these conversations out in the open so you don’t bottle up your anxiety, Gross says, but they should be done with other adults, out of earshot and eyesight of your kids. 

One important warning from Gross: These conversations also be done with adults who will make you feel supported. Don’t call that adult who makes you feel bad when you get off the phone! 

4. Do establish a routine

For kids who are used to schedules, being home with long stretches of time to fill can be a jolt to the system. Tempted to treat this like a summer vacation and let the kids freewheel? Don’t, says Wilke. 

“Having a schedule can help create a sense of stability,” she says. 

But she’s quick to add that doesn’t have to mean rigorous schoolwork all day long. 

“That schedule can include a mix of both academic time as well as play or downtime,” Wilke says. “Try to find a balance that fits your child’s needs.”

Megan Zander, a mom of twins from Connecticut, says she’s sticking to a schedule but letting her kids weigh in on what they want it to look like. That way they feel a sense of control in their topsy-turvy world, Zander says. 

Now’s a good time to reinforce health too, whether it’s making handwashing before every meal a family activity or taking time to clean around the house as a family. 

5. Do focus on the positive

There’s plenty to be stressed about, but sometimes a simple refocusing can help. For Hildenbrand, that has meant focusing on her kids and the time with them she’s gotten back. 

“We don't have to rush to get ready for school or softball practice,” she says. “I don't have PTA volunteering. I'm not tired because I don't have to stay up late writing an essay for school or working on an article for a client. We can just ... be.”

Hildenbrand says she’s also talking to her kids to help them focus on the positives. 

“I keep talking to the kids about silver linings, and that's how I feel right now,” she says. “We have to look for the silver lining. In our case, it's having so much more time as a family. My husband is a high school teacher. I'm a freelance writer, also substitute teaching and getting my master's in elementary education. Our kids play sports. Life is so busy. This has forced us to slow down.”

Even for parents who are still working all day long, nights and weekends at home with no activities in sight can be a good time to spend enjoying each other’s company or teaching kids to give back. Consider baking cookies for an immunocompromised neighbor who is trapped in their home or writing cards thanking the medical staff who are on the front lines of the crisis. 

6. Do remember kids will get through this

Believe it or not, the experts say there’s something good about kids having their lives interrupted: They’re developing the coping skills to deal with it. 

“You don’t know how to deal with hardship until you’ve been through hardship,” Gross says. 

This national trauma is going to affect our kids, but it also has the potential to help them navigate future hardships. 

“We do not promise our kids a perfect life,” Gross says. “We do promise to give them the tools for the real world.” 

Going through this as a family will help provide kids with a foundation for tough stuff down the road. 

7. Don’t forget to take time for you

Still feel like hiding in that closet and crying? That’s OK! Zander says sometimes she sneaks off for five minutes to sit in the bathroom just to reset and get back to being the mom her sons need.  

Take deep breaths, Wilke says, and if you feel like you need professional help, don’t be afraid to seek it out. 

“Many providers are offering telehealth sessions, including myself, if you do not want to go into an office at this time,” she says. 

There is also the national parent support hotline — 855-4APARENT (855-427-2736) — if you need to reach out for emotional support, problem-solving or someone to just listen. 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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