Fear is a powerful thing. It is one of the few things that connects us directly with the rest of the animal kingdom. Some will say that our fear response comes from our “reptilian brain,” in an effort to reflect how very primal it is. Our response to fear is fight, flight, or freeze. Consider someone going to punch you in the face. You do not want for your frontal lobes and the very smart of your brain to try to calculate exactly how fast that fist is coming towards you and what you need to do. Instead, your primal instincts are to block the punch, to move your head, or, in a very scary instant, to stay exactly still and then get punched right in the face. This tells us that fear can be very useful for us. It drives us to study for tests, to be on time to work, and to do our best to wash our hands every 15 seconds and not touch our face. But not all anxiety serves a purpose, and that type of anxiety is the type that becomes problematic, that will trigger people to ultimately have clinical issues that they are unable to resolve on their own.
I have not spoken with anyone recent who is not experiencing high levels of fear, both children and adults. Life under quarantine is scary. It is not so much what we know that is scary. It is, instead, what we do not know. Each day we learn new things. Many websites have a ticker that shows how many people are infected and how many people have died. On social media, people post things that they have heard from “reliable sources” about things like when school will go back in session, or that it will not.
It is reasonable to be afraid of the Corona virus, to be afraid of how you will manage financially if you or someone you love has lost a job, or things like that. However, it is unhealthy to allow fear to run your life, whether it is about this particular virus or some other situation. As adults, it is also our job to support children in not allowing their own fear to trigger them to behave in certain ways, or to flood their brain with stress chemicals that harm future growth and development.
So, how do we do this? It sounds easy to say that we will not be afraid, or to tell someone else not to be afraid, but that is unreasonable. Instead, consider the following:
1. Be informed, but do not be obsessed. People on both sides of the political aisle will say that the media is being weaponized against them. So try to look at multiple news outlets. But remember the difference between social media, opinion, and actual news.
2. Inform your children. Children of all ages should be informed, especially in times like these. Even young children will have access to phones, social media, or tablets. They may also hear the news if everyone is home. So tell your children what is happening, in an age appropriate manner. In some ways, it is okay for us to promise things we actually cannot promise. Consider how often you tell your children that you will be with them forever, or promise to come home. You cannot necessarily actually guarantee that, right? There is no reason to unnecessarily frighten your child. Share the information, and then tell them how to stay healthy. Be honest, but appropriate.
3. Do not look too far in to the future. Instead, focus on this week. As a therapist, many of the children that I work with are talking to me about their fear that school will not be in session the rest of this year. That is unnecessary fear. No matter how much the child worries will not impact how quickly school goes back in to session. And no one knows. So, instead, focus on this week. We know that this week school is not back in session. We know that this week we are still in quarantine. We know that this week most offices are still closed. Too far of a future focus will create anxiety that does not serve a healthy purpose.
4. Have a plan when you are at home. Have a schedule for yourself and your children. Everyone needs to get up in the morning and change their clothes. It does not actually matter what you change in to, but change, and prepare for the day. If your child does not have school work to do, consider what else you need on their schedule, including physical activity and sensory activities. Post your schedule, and stick with it. If it does not work after a few days, try a new schedule. Keep to activities that you have always done. Do Friday night family movie night, or Saturday morning brunch. Keep cleaning and laundry routines. You might have to actually increase this, which might feel annoying, but being in a dirty house or without clean clothes will not be helpful to you. Whatever it is, keep doing those activities.
5. Give yourself, and everyone around you some grace. You will get annoyed with the people around you, and even those who are not people, like pets. When you start to feel frustrated, take a break. Take some time alone. Take some time outside, focusing on appreciating what you have, such as a sunny day, or pretty flowers to look at it. Especially in the Central Valley, the weather has been pleasant, at least for the most part.
6. Maintain healthy activity. This means, eat healthy food regularly (as part of that schedule), drink lots of water, and get physical activity. Don’t have a lot of room? Find creative ways to move, even if it is literally just for you, or someone else, to jump up and down. Generally, people say that children need 30-60 minutes each day of physical activity. From my perspective, that is ridiculous. Children need a minimum of 120 minutes per day of activity, and that is being generous.
7. Utilize the technology that we have. Go on Pintrest and find some fun crafts to do. They do not have to look like they do in the photos, it is just about the activity. Make cookies. Watch movies. Start, and complete, projects that you have been thinking about doing, but have not done yet. Do Facetime calls with people you know, and allow children to do the same. It is important for us to maintain our relationships, and we have the opportunity to do this more now, than ever.
8. Finally, accept your feelings and the feelings of those around you. Do not judge that you are having a tough day, that will inevitably make it worse. Instead, accept that you are having the feeling, and if you do not like it, then what can you do to change it. But being angry that you feel anxious, or anxious that you feel anxious, will not help anyone. Being angry that your child is anxious or angry will also not help anything. We often hold children to higher standards of feelings than we do to ourselves. We will allow ourselves to have a bad day, or to lose our tempers, but heaven forbid our children are not respectful and polite 100% of the time. It is in times like these that we all need that grace, especially our children.
These are trying times for everyone. And quite frankly, everyone is giving advice and telling people what to do. My goal is to be your launching point and give you some strategies to be more successful. Enjoy the time that you have with your family, whether that is pets, children, or even just yourself. And on days you are not enjoying any of it, and those days will happen, just recognize that those days, too, will pass. Ultimately, this all will pass, and we (and our children) must be able to return to our previous manner of living, or perhaps, even a better manner, if we utilize this time to really learn to connect with others and take care of ourselves.
Victoria Sanders, LMFT 52610 is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Founder and CEO of VMS Family Counseling Services. She has more than 15 years experience working with children from hard places, families who have experienced trauma, and those who are struggling with behavioral and mental health issues. Victoria hopes to continue to provide support to those in her community.