After weeks and months of staying at home, most people are excited about the gradual re-opening and easing of lockdown restrictions. However, many of us still describe feeling uneasy, insecure, and un-informed about the “new normal”. A large number of Americans report feeling anxious, stressed out, experiencing feelings of depression or concern about their mental wellbeing as well as that of their family members.
Even people who have not previously experienced these feelings before might suddenly find themselves concerned about exposure to germs, socializing or entering public spaces. Young children especially might act “clingy” and feel anxious about going back to school and being separated from their parents after spending so much time together.
As the parent of a toddler who is just starting day care, I found myself trying to juggle my own emotions while appearing cheerful and confident for my child and everyone around me. My fearful state of mind and the separation anxiety my son was feeling were both new to me and left me wondering what I can do to alleviate the stress we were all experiencing.
Resist the Urge to “Fix the Problem”
I spoke with Sandrine Marlier, a mother, meditation teaches and author of “Odette’s Alphabet” - a book that offers children tools of mindfulness practice to handle overwhelming emotions, who recommends that parents resist the urge to “fix the problem” when their children are feeling scared or anxious. “There is nothing to fix because nothing is broken!” Sandrine points out. “It is ok to have big emotions!”
Saying things like “calm down” or “don’t be sad” may seem like the first thing that pops into our mind, but with a more supportive dialogue we can actually help our children to deal with and work through those feelings. Try to observe your child without judgment and a neutral attitude. Be curious about what your child is experiencing and do not jump to conclusions. Instead of asking “Are you nervous?”, try asking things like “What are you feeling? What are your thoughts? And how does that feel inside your body?”
When Fear is Healthy or Even Helpful
Ivan Greene, a lifelong professional rock climber and motivational speaker, who teaches workshops in “Fear Management” clarifies: some amount of fear is healthy and helpful, it can even be life saving. “If you cross a busy street in the city or are being chased by a lion in the desert, having fear is a quite reasonable and important instinct to have. Fear, to some degree, can help us stay alert and focused, be cautious and make calculated decisions. Anxiety is when the fear spins out of control and keeps us from thinking clearly and acting rationally.”
“In an anxious moment children are not rational, you cannot reason with them.” Sandrine explains. “Talking about what is happening on their level can slow down the panicky feeling and create a distance to the negative emotions”. You can even stand up, move around, or role play! Give the fear a personality, shape or color and pretend you are scaring it away!”
I giggle as I remember a creative writing workshop where we imagined a little fear monster during a guided meditation session and stomped it into the ground - apparently this works for grown-ups, as well! Detaching yourself from these kinds of limiting emotions can be a very helpful tool.
When Anxiety Inevitably Arises, Remember to Breathe
She also recommends breathing exercises: “Controlling you breath can help controlling your fear. Anxiety puts you in a place of stenosis” says Marlier. If you think back to the last time you felt scared, you might remember that “knot in the stomach” feeling, tension, or another physical way in which the sensation manifested itself. It is paralyzing, choking, restricting.
“A mindset of anxiety is based on fear. Not having enough, not getting enough, not being enough. We want to create a mindset of abundance and room to grow, based on love, trust and gratitude."
Implementing A Mindfulness Routine in Daily Life
Instead of addressing those issues when they are already out of balance, she recommends implementing a routine of mindfulness in daily life. Even little children can enjoy practicing grounding exercises, like a guided meditation or breath work. “You can tell a toddler to imagine their belly as a balloon. Ask them what color it is and to put their hands on in while they inflate and deflate it slowly.” Clearly, a meltdown is not the right time to start practicing this - so it is a great idea to begin doing this playfully at home and in a relaxed environment, so that when a stressful situation arises, you have a choice of tools to deal with it.
The Power of Gratitude
Focusing on things that you are grateful for, is another effective mindfulness technique. For example, you could create a habit of telling each other at bedtime what made you happy that day, or set a good intention for the day ahead over breakfast in the morning. “Train your mind to look for the best in life!” says Marlier.
Ivan illustrates the daily practice with a comparison to nature. “Think of your mind as your very own beautiful garden. What would you like to grow there? You have that patch of fertile soil, and you can set good intentions in your mind like you would plant beautiful flowers in a garden. Then, you must tend to those seeds. Intentions, like seeds, will never manifest if we do not take good care of them. So you have to practice mindfulness to stay in tune with your emotional state - note when you are letting the weeds grow and make sure they don’t take over. Keep watering the beautiful plants you want to grow – the quote “you reap what you sow” applies to your own state of mind as well!”
Validating Your Child's Emotions
When your child’s anxiety is tied to a specific thing or event, like going to school, talk about it while everyone is in a calm and good mood. Validate their feelings and concerns and give your child the reassurance that they are loved and accepted with all the range of emotions they are experiencing, but do try to guide them to focus on the positive – is there something or someone they look forward to? A class, a game or a song they specifically enjoyed in the past? Go over the steps and routines of the day, and tell your child where you will be and what you will be doing while you are apart.
If your child is upset because it misses mommy or daddy, you can try to “bring more of mommy or daddy to school” – maybe by letting them keep a so-called transitional object like a scarf, a photo or a stone for them to feel connected to home. You can also address the issue with the teacher; they may be able to give you other information about what your child may be struggling with, more useful suggestions, and help you co-ordinate a plan for drop-offs and pick-ups, for example.
Tackling Larger Issues Together
Slow down when it comes to tackling bigger and more overwhelming problems. Break them down into small, individual steps and address one thing at a time.As grown-ups we often forget to “tune in” with our emotional state, and notice when something is “off” only days or even weeks later, when a deeper feeling of anxiety has taken hold of us. In our current environment, multi-tasking and fast-paced lifestyle, this has become increasingly common.
Continuous exposure to negative stress impacts us not only psychologically, but can have a detrimental effect on our physical health as well, so establishing a routine of gratitude and mindfulness is an important practice for ourselves just as much as for our whole family.
What Our Emotional Reactions Can Teach Us
“When we notice ourselves becoming frustrated with our children’s anxiety, it can be an interesting exercise to observe for us as parents, what about it exactly is upsetting or irritating for us.” notes Greene. “Do we feel disappointed, bothered or inconvenienced by our child’s behavior? Or are we sad that we cannot give our child the sense of security and protection they desire? Do we feel inadequate, or is there an underlying issue that is creating the anxiety? And if this is the case, what can we do about it?
Everyone has different things that they are naturally more comfortable with or naturally terrified of. Our children, just like us, will have their own reactions to things that come up, but it is important not to blame them for the emotions we are feeling.”
Marlier emphasizes that parents should allow themselves to have big emotions as well. “Do not feel guilty or ashamed. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and teach. If you acted in a way in front of your children that you are not proud of, it is not irreversible. You can talk it through by explaining what you did, what you felt, and what you will do better or different in the future.”
You can follow Sandrine on Instagram here
and Ivan Greene on Instagram here
• Disclaimer: this article is for informative purposes and not a replacement for medical advice. Please seek help from a behaviorist or therapist, or speak to your pediatrician if your child’s anxiety is severe and not improving, if there is an underlying trauma, or if other forms of intervention are needed. *