While the pandemic is relatively new, how to handle the anxiety surrounding it is not according to Kewaunee County UW Extension Family Life Educator Renee Koenig. Research shows children often imitate the brain state of the adults they are around. This causes children to operate with the emotional side of their brain without thinking through the issue at hand. Koenig says by decreasing your children’s access to sources of stress, practicing calming skills, and empathizing with them, you can help them feel less afraid or anxious.
She adds that if fears or worries get in the way of daily life, a possible anxiety order should be addressed with help from a therapist, doctor, or school counselor. You can read more about Koenig’s thoughts on anxiety, fear, and worry below.
FROM RENEE KOENIG
In ambiguous situations, such as the COIVD-19 pandemic, we don’t have past experiences to give us direction on how to act or what might happen. Research shows that in ambiguous situations humans feel nervous, uncertain, or out of control. When we feel anxious and afraid, we function as if we are under attack – using our “emotional” brain instead of using our “thinking” brain skills. Our “thinking” brain helps us understanding other people’s emotions, practice perspective taking, and calm down. Our “emotional” brain, on the other hand, prepares us for safety by activating our fight, flight, or freeze response.
“Both ways of thinking have their purpose but our fight or flight response was intended for short term needs. Long term anxiety and stress can be harmful,” says Renee Koenig, Associate Professor for UW-Madison Extension. “There’s not much we can do to change the level of ambiguity outside our door. Adults can, however, be mindful of how our anxiety, fear, and stress impacts children. Parents can set the stage in their own home to help children manage anxiety and stress.”
Children often imitate the brain state of the adults around them – when adults activate their emotional brain, kids move into their emotional brain. Imagine two scenarios: a child has spilled a cup of milk. In the first scenario, the parent yells at the child for the mistake. This child yells or melts down in response. In the second scenario, the parent takes a deep breath and says, “Mistakes happen. Grab a towel and we’ll clean it up together.” Most likely this parent and child work together to calmly clean up the milk. Children co-regulate with adult help; they need an adult to model calm and problem solving before they can access those skills independently.
When children or adults are feeling stressed, angry, or fearful, one thing adults can do to help children is to practice and model calm. Try to be aware when you are feeling anxious or afraid of what might be triggering that feeling. You can try to minimize your exposure to that trigger. But we often can’t fully avoid the source of our anxiety. Instead when you feel anxious, practice actively calming yourself by taking deep belly breaths and talking to someone you trust about your feelings.
Parents can also teach these skills to children:
Decrease children's access to adult sources of stress or worry. Turn off the news and, instead, ask your child what he has heard or wants to know. As a child grows older, teach her that she is allowed to adjust her exposure to triggering movies, books, social media feeds, or news.
Practice calming skills together to better understand how to handle anxiety-producing moments. Teach deep breathing by pretending to smell a flower and blow out a candle or using a straw to blow a paper ball across the table. Make a mindful jar and take deep breaths until the glitter settles to the bottom.
Empathize and problem solve with your child. When he is scared or angry describe the emotion – “You’re sad that you can’t go to the playground. I’d be sad about that too.” Then work together to find a next step – “It’s ok to feel sad. Would it help to think of some things you can do now?”
“During this time of global uncertainty and stress, parents have the power to turn the dial down on the stress and worry that children experience at home,” says Koenig. For everyday worries and fears, supportive parenting can help children cope with these anxieties. Parents teach children healthy ways to reduce anxiety when they model calming techniques and recognize emotions. Parents also help children advocate for themselves and problem solve a less anxiety-producing approach.
UW-Madison Extension Parenting. . . Behind the Behavior videos offer additional positive parenting ideas at https://www.facebook.com/watch/HDRInstitute/501073360655593/ . You can tune in weekly from home for parenting support from Extension educators.
Feeling afraid, worried, or anxious is normal for children and adults. When fears or worries get in the way of daily life, however, they may be a sign of an anxiety disorder -- this is an important time to talk to a doctor, therapist, or school counselor.
For more information on parenting, contact the Kewaunee County UW-Madison Division of Extension office at https://kewaunee.extension.wisc.edu/ or 920-388-7137.