These are some strange and stressful days we’re facing, aren’t they? Many of us who are parenting adopted or foster kids may be feeling additional stress over how to support our kids during these uncertain days.
Our kids might feel pretty fearful or anxious about all of the significant changes they are experiencing. They are looking to us to them cope with the anxiety about CoVid-19 and the coronavirus outbreaks.
Structure Has Left The Building
Parenting children who have experienced trauma brings with it a necessary level of structure and routine to communicate security, felt safety, and predictability. But last week, within a space of fewer than 7 days, the whole nation experienced the upheaval of no school for who knows how long.
We all have had to figure out telecommuting, distance learning, and social distancing with almost no notice. Structure, routine, and predictability flew straight out the window! (Please tell me that this is not just my house I’m describing?! Please!)
Time to Reel it Back In
Now that we’ve been at this shutdown thing for a week or so, we can hopefully turn our attention to re-introducing structure to our daily lives. If it’s really chaotic in your home right now while you are reading this, take a deep breath. We can do this.
We are here to help you reel it all back in. Establishing that this is our new normal for the foreseeable future is the first step toward dealing with the anxiety our kids might be feeling.
Get Your Mask On First
We all know the metaphor of the oxygen mask dropping when an airplane is losing altitude, right? The instructions from the flight attendant are to put the mask on your face first, get a couple of deep breaths. Then, take care of those around you. The truth within the metaphor is even more critical when you are parenting a child who is gripped with anxiety or fear in times of uncertainty.
In a recent article by ADDitude magazine, Lidia Zylowska, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist with expertise in mindfulness-based therapy for ADHD reminds us,
Children are very good at picking up parents’ emotional energy, so it is vital to manage your own fear and anxiety and not amplify your child’s fears. This is even more important for parents of children who have an anxious temperament or have significant worry about something.
A few ideas for managing your own fears and stresses include:
- Cut back on caffeine (ouch)
- Establish regular wake-up and go-to-bed times
- Keep a journal
- Make a playlist of uplifting music
- Meditate or pray, several times a day if need be
- Exercise regularly
- Talk it through with a friend
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but the point is to prioritize self-care in this season. The shutdown could be a long haul, and we need to take good care of ourselves to go the distance and parent well. Consider that it might be helpful to seek professional help if these ideas don’t help you manage your own anxiety.
Make a Plan With Your Child
Frequently, children who struggle with anxiety or who have experienced trauma need external support for how to manage their time and the expectations we have of them. We recently posted about behavior charts for kids who need visual aids. Similarly, while our kids try to adapt to the new normal of life – and learning! – at home, we can support them by creating visible schedules.
Depending upon the age of your child, consider breaking down the day into several chunks of time dedicated to a specific set of expectations. It’s not necessary to duplicate their school day schedule. However, your children do need something to rely upon for “hemming in” the now open-ended days and hours at home.
For example, a Monday through Friday routine could be:
- 9-11 — educational games, online learning, and reading time.
- 11-3 — family lunch, home ec/cooking/dinner prep followed by quiet rest time
- 3-5 — outdoor playtime or rainy day screen time
Find a schedule that works for you and be sure to keep it steady and predictable, especially during the weekdays. For parents working from home during the shutdowns, post your schedule to give the plan a “teamwork” feel. It also communicates your expectations of them while you work.
If your kids are older, be sure to listen to their input and allow them to have a voice in creating the plan. Sharing control over their plans for the days and weeks ahead is a healthy way to help our kids manage their anxiety.
Hold the Plans Loosely
Now more than ever, we need to model flexibility and resilience to our kids. If you have a plan and it’s not going well, have a family meeting for how to improve it. Be willing to tweak the schedule or even wreck it and start over again to find what works for you all to succeed together.
Telling our kids frequently that they are doing a great job handling this crazy time is so essential – especially if you are seeing that your plan is the problem, not the kids!
Move it or Lose it!
Regular exercise is key to stress management for us adults, and it’s no different for our kids. Keeping their bodies moving toward “pleasantly exhausted” should be a daily goal to help ward off melt-downs or otherwise losing control. Of course, spring weather is notoriously unpredictable this early in the season, so you might need to be creative. As we mentioned in last week’s blog post, there are plenty of online resources for indoor movement if the weather is uncooperative.
If you can get everyone outside and moving for a family walk – keeping 6 feet away from your neighbors, of course – then do it. Include it in their daily schedule – in lots of creative ways. They can take turns walking the dog or challenge each other to a step-counting contest. Use sidewalk chalk to make intricate hopscotch squares – you can count it for both math and physical education. Whenever you can, be active with them!
Acknowledge and Validate Their Fear
Many foster or adopted kids have difficulty understanding and naming the feelings they have inside. During this challenging season, they may be really be struggling internally. The way that struggle comes out is often in challenging behaviors.
More help for Parenting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma
Take a deep breath and calm yourself when their behavior goes off the rails. Try to sit together when you are ready and narrate what is going on. Observation and wonder are great tools for teasing out what our kids are feeling and validating those feelings.
It might look like one of these conversations:
- Take some deep breaths with me. I noticed that you sounded really angry with your sister just now.
- I noticed that you were being very snarky this afternoon. I sometimes get snarky and angry when I’m really stressed out. I wonder if you are feeling stressed out about all this change of being home every day, all day?
- It must feel uncomfortable right now, learning at home, and not seeing your teachers every day. Does that feel like loneliness to you? I wonder if maybe you are a little angry about it too?
If you can name the emotion and help them connect what they do when they feel it, it will likely calm them quickly. Our kids feel a sense of safety in our care when we can handle their big feelings.
We can take it a step further and validate those fears by telling them that we feel the same way in difficult times. Those big feelings feel less overwhelming when our kids know we have them too.
Chase the Fear with Facts
In age-appropriate ways, talk to your kids about the scientific and medical facts of the coronavirus, prevention, and social distancing.
These resources are excellent choices to help you have those conversations:
- Talking to Children About COVID-19 (Coronavirus): A Parent Resource
- Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope with the Coronavirus Disease 2019
- NPR’s Goats and Soda, Just For Kids: A Comic Exploring The New Coronavirus
- Amara’s How to Help: Tips and Resources for Foster Parents and Children During the COVID-19 Outbreak
We have to be diligent to repeat the facts to our kids often – and give them tools to develop healthy self-talk while we do it. That might be a script we work out with our child, or a mantra that we repeat together when we feel the fear rising, or a song we sing together that pushes anxiety back. If we make it fun and we practice it frequently, we are setting them up for successfully managing fear in other life experiences as well.
Touch Base Often
In these earliest days of this new normal, we should make a point to check in frequently with our kids. Again, narrating what we observe in those moments is a tool to gauge how they are coping. Giving them the language to tell us how they feel or what they need is vital.
As the new normal becomes an established routine in the coming weeks, we can slowly reduce the check-ins. Remember that this national crisis is likely a long game, so be alert to changes, weariness, cabin fever, or even depression. Those touchpoints cannot go away altogether. (Let’s be real, new habits take up to 21 days to take hold, so let’s be patient with each other, right?)
Use the days ahead to increase meaningful connection time. Eat more than just dinner together. Read chapter books together. Stop all the activity in the house for a movie break. Play charades after lunch. All of these hours spent home together can be used to further anchor our kids into our family’s love and safety if we can figure out how to maximize that time.
Streeeeetch out Bedtime
Finally, for many of our kids who came to our homes from traumatic experiences, bedtime and overnight hours are often the most vulnerable and scary times of the day. We can proactively “coach them up” with some extended care during the bedtime routine. Here are a few examples of things to try:
- Quiet music during bedtime prep
- Rhyming books read in a soft, soothing tone
- Dimming the lights around the house
- Finger puppet stories in bed
- Reciting prayers or lyrics to hopeful songs together
- Extended snuggle and whisper time with Mom or Dad
- Sharing uplifting quotes about hope, bravery, and overcoming
Be Confident and Kind
Now more than ever, our kids need us to be showing confidence and kindness. They need it from us. They need to see us extending it to others.
When we communicate that we have a plan, we build confidence in them.
When we show our kids that we can handle whatever our family is facing, it sets them free to be kids.
When we are kind to those who are struggling – a neighbor who cannot get out to shop or our child who is acting out because he’s afraid – we teach them that their grown-ups are safe and trustworthy.
We want our children to survive and even thrive in this challenging time. Helping our kids manage their fear and anxiety is an opportunity to show them how they can do hard things with the family that loves them by their side.