I live in Seattle, the US epicenter for the novel coronavirus. Our schools are shut down for 6 weeks and possibly more. If you are not aware of the reasons and need for social distancing and action, there are many resources online. It can be hard to weed through because the news can be conflicting. To be short and clear: we need to be taking action now. Social distancing is not so we won’t get the virus, it is so when we do there are enough hospital beds and care to help us. It is to help save those at high risk. Look at it more like social care, the community coming together to support one another, especially those most vulnerable and our health care workers. There are many articles out there on how to stock your home and supplies, but few on how to emotionally and relationally weather this stressful time. Here I have strategies for anxiety, home structure, and how to navigate school closures and kids. While this is written for families, it applies to people of all ages in many ways.
Since I have an ongoing anxiety disorder with hypochondriasis, it can be hard to tell how much my anxiety is running my response to this pandemic, and what is smart, cautious concern. I have been using a lot of self-soothing skills to support my nervous system to stay calm, informed, and take healthy action. Here are some suggestions that are helpful now, and always, in our ever changing and stressful culture. Doing these together as a family is co-regulation. Talking with your family about supporting one another in calming skills is living a healthy lifestyle.
- BREATHE Slow down and take 5-10 deep breaths focusing on getting air to the bottom of your lungs and increasing your exhale time. This helps release endorphins as well as stimulate the vagal nerve which helps calm you down. It also helps you connect with your body.
- GROUND Orient yourself to the present moment. You can do this by simply walking through your main 5 senses of sight, taste, touch, sound and smell. Name three things that you notice in this very moment about each with intention. Pause on them and notice the quality of feeling with each. This will help your cognitive and physical brain to connect and regulate.
- MOVE Dance in your living room. Do yoga for anxiety. Go for a walk outside. Play with your dog or cat. Work out. Get some endorphins going. Be playful about it.
- LIMIT NEWS Be intentional on where you are sourcing your news and how much you take in. Some folks do this once per week or once per day. Personally, I only read news in the mid-morning after coffee and some relaxation time. If I do it before bed it keeps me awake, if I do it first thing, it puts me in a bad mood. I also limit it to about 15 minutes or just a few articles.
- COMMUNITY It’s important to have your go-to folks. Whether that is friends, family or your therapist, make sure you have some regularly scheduled time to connect and talk about your feelings and life. Hug and get physical contact if you can safely, even if it’s from a pet. Tell people you love them, express affection, it boosts your oxytocin and immune system.
- DISTRACT There is a fine line between avoiding and denial and taking a break. If you are being intentional, putting limits around it, and also acknowledging feelings and dealing with them at other times, distraction is a great skill. I just binged some Netflix myself and it was a nice respite.
The only thing scarier than coronavirus at the moment is a city full of bored kids and teens. The discussion I have been having most with teens and parents is how to cope with the isolation. Up until last week, most of the conversations I have had with folks is the stress of how fast life has been and how busy we all are. It’s like we were all on a sprint and it came to a screeching halt. Some are ecstatic, ready to Netflix binge, and some have no idea what to do with themselves. Either way, we will soon all become discombobulated by it in one way or another being out of our normal routines. The way I have been framing this experience is to look at it like deep self-care and community care. Creating new healthy routine is of upmost importance for our brains and bodies. Getting your kids on board is part of that.
Most schools have online schedules or at the very least homework packets. Sit down with your family and strategize the upcoming weeks together. Write it all down, make it fun and pretty. If you have glitter glue, this is the time folks, get it out! Below are suggestions on how to create some healthy routine and structure to your day to day life. Doing this ahead of time will support and maybe even prevent some of the conflict that is inevitably to arise in the upcoming weeks at home together. It is some time up front to save time and stress later. As many know, I do not have kids at home. I am staying with my brother at this time and we have done this even with just two adults in the house. It’s already saving bickering.
- CALMING CONFLICT What does everyone need to do to calm down when irritated or upset? What is your emotional plan for conflict? Each person writes down 5 things they can do to calm down and where they will go to do it. (See list above, another is to go to your room for a bit to chill out.)
- RULES AND EXPECTATIONS What are your house rules and expectations during this time? What responsibilities and chores does everyone have? How often do they need to be done? (Ex: My brother cooks, I do dishes every day. I vacuum, he cleans bathroom twice a week.)
- SCHEDULE AND STRUCTURE How are your days broken up? When is school time, playtime, free time, house chore time, bedtime, meals, movement/exercise time, time outdoors and wake up time? You don’t have to stick to this 100% but nervous systems are calmer when they know what to expect. This is especially true when so much is uncertain at the moment with the pandemic. Make sure you are getting enough time for your own work and self-care and have clear expectations around when that is.
- BOREDOM Boredom box or ideas. Make a list of things each of you can do when you get bored or feel stir crazy. With littles, I make a box and put pictures or words on little slips of paper for them to pull out like a surprise. This is a good one to share activities they can do on their own. (Draw a farm, make up a song, create a fort out of pillows, make cards for friends you miss.) Don’t underestimate board games, toys and cars and make time to play together. (Other ideas: bake, walk dog, make art, watch YouTube, call a friend, organize closets.)
- INCENTIVES AND CONSEQUENCES Expectations on school performance need to be discussed. Make clear what it is the kids need to do and what your incentives and consequences are. Make sure you have a clear agreement on this and hold to it. I write more below, but electronics need to be used at this time for social and education. They are still a privilege, and therefore a great incentive. People respond better to yes than no, so let them earn their screen time instead of always threatening to take it away.
For parents of littles, you now are wearing an extra hat of schoolteacher. This is a tough one for some, as if parents didn’t already have a lot on their plates. It’s also an opportunity to connect and grow with your kids. This is a time where we can get really curious in all we do, teach natural life skills and have adventures. You also do not have to occupy every moment of their time. Try to help foster some independence and responsibility with your kids now. Help guide them toward self-entertainment and natural exploration. Take all the suggestions above and also ask yourself these questions for some good classroom management and curriculum strategies.
- What kind of learner am I? Experiential, interpersonal, kinetic, etc.?
- What kind of learner are my kids?
- How can I incorporate activities that will be both fun and educational right now for all of us?
- Ask your kids what they want to learn right now, what they want to do. I often ask kids this question: if you didn’t have to be in school what would you do with your time, what would you want to learn? You may be surprised at the answers. They may say, build rocket ships. So, get creative, how can you start them on their way of learning about that topic? Toilet paper tubes, which many of you apparently have a lot of, can be excellent craft supplies. Use imagination. HAVE FUN AND ENCOURAGE CREATIVITY AND CURIOSITY.
- Create “classroom rules” for littles. Have them come up with a list of classroom rules for when you are doing actual packet work. Have rules in mind yourself before you start but see if they can come up with them. The more they feel it is their idea, the more they will follow them. Usually listening, taking turns talking, and hands to yourself come up naturally. If they don’t….you suggest it. Writing it down will help reference it as you go along. Pointing at a sign is easier than saying, “We already agreed not to do that! These are the rules!” Again, know your incentives and consequences as well. This is the same thing teachers do at the beginning of the year.
For parents of teens, I know your teens are going to want to go hang out, and some of you might be fine with that. Seattle is encouraging that not happen because it defeats the purpose of school closures, but I understand this is a personal choice. We can give information and encourage teens to FaceTime and use other apps and platforms to connect. This is not the time to monitor screen time but to encourage healthy use of it. Teens need to be connecting with friends often, that is part of their healthy developmental needs. If you can make some of the expectations above explicit and they can show follow through, give them access to the electronics at this time. Make it clear that if they cannot meet expectations then that will change. Electronics are a privilege and incentive.
To reiterate, the reason I love writing this structure down is that it saves the emotional/mental labor of having to re-explain it 5 million times. Clear, realistic, agreed upon expectations and routine will help create cohesiveness and nervous system relief in your homes to weather the upcoming weeks no matter the age or family constellation. Getting crafty with your lists is just fun and bonding, and helps kids make the investment into it. Plus, glitter glue equals happy. If you have kids sharing households with other parents or care givers, make sure you are all on the same page with both your virus policies and house rules. If you cannot be, talk about the differences and precautions/expectations explicitly together in your home. Be safe out there, I am wishing everyone well. I am doing all telehealth at the time being as I sincerely want to be mindful of our community and people who are at risk. Current clients can feel free to reach out with questions or concerns. Other folks can feel free to reach out as I am doing parent consults at this time to help with suggestions for your home. (How to Cope with the Unknown: Framework and Strategies for the COVID Pandemic is the next in this series.)
Lastly, as an art therapist, the arts always pull us through in these times. Here are some excellent online offerings.