Staying Calm in Middle of Coronavirus Anxiety

With schools closed, social distancing the new normal, and uncertainty about when all this will end, it can be difficult for us grownups to keep calm and carry on. This mom asks how to handle her five-year-old’s increasing anxiety about all the changes.

Q: I’d like some advice on how to handle my 5-year-old daughter’s worry/nerves at night since this whole coronavirus pandemic took over. She usually goes to school every morning and dance class once a week, plus playdates with cousins, but all of that has abruptly stopped. She has also probably overheard me talking to other adults on the phone about everything happening in the world. 

I am trying not to let my own anxiety show outwardly as much as possible, but I am human and I do have bouts of worrying. She’s been really clingy at bedtime, waking up in the night crying and sad, and sometimes scared for no reason she can explain. Should I lean more toward being understanding and soft or strict and rule based during this time? She is usually a pretty tough cookie who doesn’t get shaken by much, which is why I am not sure which direction to go. Also, we have been sticking to our normal routine as much as possible within our household. Thank you in advance for your input.

A: These are unprecedented times we’re living in, and we’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this new “normal” and what that means, especially as things change almost daily. In my area of the country, we went from schools being open, to schools closed for the day, to schools closed until mid-April in the space of 24 hours. Add to that social distancing and all the people panic-buying, and you have a recipe for sleepless nights and anxious parents and kids.

However, as you’ve seen, your daughter isn’t able to process this well at all because of her immaturity. You’ve mentioned your own struggles with anxiety and whether you show it or not, it’s coming through loud and clear to your daughter. I’m not saying that to make you feel bad at all, but to help you realize change has to start with you.

So here’s the plan—when you have a plan, you’ll feel less anxious and more in control! First, write down all your fears, no matter how probable or realistic. Just spend 10 to 15 minutes writing down everything you’re anxious or afraid of. Then put a star by all the things you can control or negate. Of the ones left on your list, rank them in terms of probability, from probably going to happen to 1-in-a-million chance of happening.

Of the things you can control, write down a plan to handle those fears/concerns. Then burn or shred the list of the remaining fears/concerns. This may sound silly, but the physical act of writing down those looping thoughts in our heads, then figuring out which ones we can do something about, and destroying the list of the ones we can’t, will help. It truly will.

Second, stop feeding the coronavirus fear monster. Limit yourself to one, half hour block of social media scrolling a day. Read only two news articles about what’s happening in your area a day. Only discuss the news with your spouse for 15 minutes after daughter’s in bed for the night. In other words, you’ve been living and breathing only coronavirus for too long and it’s “infected” you with anxiety. Starving the COVID-19 monster of substance will lessen its hold on you.

Instead, fill your time with other things. Take walks with your daughter–nature has a wonderful restorative quality about it that soothes our battered souls. Read books, listen to audio books, watch movies, play board and card games, take up a craft or hobby, clean out your junk drawer and closets, reorganize your kitchen cabinets, do all those household tasks you’ve been putting off, etc. In other words, don’t leave large blocks of time available for thoughts about the coronavirus. I’d even come up with a weekly schedule for yourself to make sure you don’t slip back into old habits.

Now that you’ve got yourself under control, you’ll start to feel less anxious, and that will help your daughter to relax. As she sees you enjoying yourself, and not talking about the “end of the world” stuff, she’ll feel less anxious. I’d start up her dance class again with the help of YouTube and other websites that are offering free instructional videos for kids on all subjects. Add some other fun activities on the schedule, too, such as virtual trips to zoos, and museums. If she hasn’t learned to ride a two-wheel bike, now’s a great time to master that skill. Give her daily and weekly chores to do as well–and if she has some chores, add more to them. But also let her have rest time to process things.

For bedtime, consider letting her listen to a music or an audio book as she goes to sleep. Give her the responsibility of tucking in her stuffed animals or dolls alongside her. If you’re religious, teach her prayers to say and let her pray first, then you pray for her as well. When she wakes up in the night, don’t pick her up or turn on the light–just go into her room, pat her back, reassure her, sing one song, then leave. Don’t ask her why she’s crying, as that’s not important and she doesn’t know. But your calmness will calm her and sooth her back to sleep.

Above all, remember, You can do this. You’re stronger than you think. You just got off track a little bit, but you can course-correct and get off the anxiety train.

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sarah@sarahhamaker.com
(703) 691-1676

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