5 New 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.
Unknowns About the Coronavirus
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.
The novel coronavirus
“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.”
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.
“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. Daycares 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.
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.”