There’s a video clip of an exasperated Israeli mother of four, rapid-fire venting that being home and trying to help squabbling kids with their online learning is breaking her: “If we don’t die of corona, we’ll die of long-distance learning.” It’s gone viral in WhatsApp groups and on social media.
As life moves mostly indoors, parents are facing the seemingly impossible task of working from home (for those who can actually do that) and taking care of the kids in our new Age of Coronavirus – while also facing the challenge of explaining to their offspring what is happening in ways that are calming and helpful.
But there are strategies out there to help with the stress and uncertainty.
Here are some tips and guidelines from Israeli psychologists, some of them experts in anxiety, others with backgrounds in helping families in times of war and crisis.
Calm parents mean calm or (calmer) kids
Perhaps the most repeated guidance I found in my reporting was this: Children will follow their parents’ lead in how they react to the new normal. That’s because children don’t have a lot of experience with new and threatening situations, and it’s the job of the adults in their lives to model behavior and to teach them from our experience.
“In general, the way children react to this whole scenario will be a reflection of how the adults around them respond. If we are reassuring, the kids will be okay. If we react in catastrophizing around the children, they will feel that way as well,” says Diddy Mymin Kahn, a psychologist and trauma specialist.
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In short, says Mymin Kahn – who is co-CEO of Kuchinate, African Refugee Women’s Collective, and helped Israel coordinate its response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014 – the way children are going to behave and feel anxiety is a function of the way adults behave.”
For her part, Nilly Mor, a child psychologist at the School of Education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who specializes in anxiety and depression, says this is a good time for parents to apply the safety instructions given on airplanes: first, place the oxygen mask on yourself and then help your children with their own. This means, she explains, that first parents need to calm and educate themselves so they can best assist their children’s emotional and psychological preparedness.
Parents should remember that this time will pass, and that most likely it is not themselves or their children who are at immediate risk, says Jonathan Huppert, a Hebrew University professor of psychology, who is an expert in the nature and treatment of anxiety and related disorders.
Adding to our levels of anxiety and stress, however, is the very nature of our different coping mechanisms, Huppert says.
“The emotional piece is that this is a stressful time for everyone. We know that how we relate to stress impacts how stress affects us, so if we are expecting a stressful time, we need to make the best of it. It’s okay to be stressed, because this is not a normal time,” he says.
“So it’s good to do things that will help manage the stress, whether it’s meditation, yoga, relaxation or breathing exercises – whatever works best, so you can say: Yes, I’m stressed, but it’s not about ‘why me’ or ‘why now.’ This is about everybody.”
For kids in particular, breathing and muscle relaxation exercises can be especially helpful, in addition to guided imagery and meditation. Here are some helpful resources from NATAL, the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center.
Educational psychologist Tamar Lavi, director of community outreach at NATAL, has been researching and treating populations exposed to trauma in the context of terror and war for 20 years.
She advises parents to tap into what they already know works for calming down both themselves and their child (like cuddling or reading stories). Moreover, it is important for parents to remember that children may also be reacting to imaginary fears on top of existing ones. For younger children especially, Lavi notes, the threat of the coronavirus is not concrete, which is where YouTube videos for kids that explain the virus might be helpful.
“Their thinking can be egocentric and sometime magical so they tend to think they are responsible for many, many things … and that can go into self-blame,” Lavi cautions.
“Parents really have to take a deep breath – you have to go into a different state of mind. This is not about a few days or a week,” she adds. “It seems like this will be a long period of four to five weeks, of not going to work and having the kids at home. Unlike during a state of war, you can plan. It is calming to know once you do that you are in different state of mind. “
Part of that new state of mind means planning a new routine. And the younger the kids, the more important it is to maintain a routine and to try to keep things as normal as possible.
Keeping a routine
Young children need a routine, but so do older kids, including teenagers. Going to bed and waking up at regular hours is also about getting enough sleep, and sleep is one of the pillars – along with a balanced diet and exercise – that will keep us all healthy.
Lavi suggests that along with those parts of the daily regimen, certain other rituals should be maintained, like eating dinner together. “Keep those rituals,” she says, “and create new ones to adapt to the new situation” – like working out as a family every morning for 15 minutes or making time to play games together.
“For adolescents the routine keeps them from falling apart and for younger kids it provides a feeling of security,” Lavi adds.
Keeping to a schedule also helps pace the family. By parents keeping their own routines, including exercising and eating properly, that helps them deal with what promises to be a marathon of an experience. As Nilly Mor cautions: “Overextended parents cannot really support children in what they are going through.”
Knowledge: Empowering kids to take a role in preventing the spread of the coronavirus
“Wash your hands” has gone from a nagging parental reminder to a possible lifeline. It’s important that kids understand their role, hygienically and otherwise, in helping their community – and the world – stay healthy. It both helps them follow the rules, and make them feel empowered, experts say.
In a post on Facebook, one parent, a therapist, wrote that she told her son that every time he washes his hands, he is performing an act of loving kindness for his community.
Says Mor: “We need to ask kids: What are our tools? And then say, ‘My tools are washing hands, blowing my nose into a tissue,’ and so on. It gives them something to do. What causes anxiety is a sense of a lack of control. These routine acts give them back a feeling of certainty and a feeling that they have some control.
“This also gives kids a feeling of doing something meaningful: They are not just protecting themselves, but also others,” Mor adds, citing Israeli research that found that children who were given teddy bears to care for during wartime dealt better with stress and trauma.
For adolescents, this is an ideal time to talk about social solidarity.
Keeping social – screens and all
Now that “social distancing” and “quarantine” are household words, the question is how to how to keep our offspring connected. In terms of greater social connection, technology is a double-edged sword – with the potential to both connect and isolate. On one hand, screen time is way for kids to stay in touch with friends and not feel isolated; on the other, it may not be so helpful.
For one, Jonathan Huppert recommends what he calls “active use” of social media: “Texting and engaging with friends is a very good way of keeping social support and contact during this kind of time. On the other hand, passive use of social media – just scrolling through Instagram or whatever platform, and using it for hours on end – is depress-agenic and not a healthy way of using technology.”
Taking a break from screens and being physically active is essential, he says. It's possible to use an app or other means to track or even limit screen time, whether among parents or kids, Huppert adds.
Advice for anxiety prone adults – and children
“Kids who are anxious, like adults who are anxious, tend to overly estimate that bad things happen and to think of bad things as worse than they are,” says Huppert. “The focus on this is hard [to cope with], but we can say: ‘We can do this or that and things are going to be okay. The government and the public are taking seriously the need to keep as many people healthy as possible, and the more we do our part the better it is.’”
Studies have been done that show that the more kids feel part of the process and help out – by keeping their teddy bear or pet, or even their grandparents, safe and protected – the better they will cope, says Huppert.
For teenagers, this period of life can already be stressful enough. It’s also the age for the onset of anxiety and depression, so parents should be aware of any significant mood changes in their teens and seek help. There are lots of therapists in the country who, at times like this, will also provide treatment online.
One tool for helping teenagers in particular with stress and anxiety is to try to solve a problem together – for example, Tamar Lavi suggests, working through how they can continue to socialize in a relatively risk-free setting or online.
“Deciding things together will have longer lasting effects with teens,” Lavi says.
Talking about uncertainty and future plans
The heavy weight of uncertainty is hard for adults and children to comprehend and bear. All of a sudden “what will happen tomorrow” is an open question, not to mention the day or weeks after that.
What should parents do, for example, when their kids ask about Passover and summer plans? Huppert has this to say: “Part of all this is just being honest and telling them the government has experts who have made a decision to make people as safe as possible. Or to answer back, for example, ‘I really want you to go to camp this summer, I also want to have a seder with the family. It’s really difficult not knowing right now, but we have to hope for the best and prepare for whatever the situation will be and make it good. It will all be okay.’”
Huppert also suggests that kids draw pictures or keep a journal about this period in our lives – because documenting it, and even telling them they will one day tell their own grandchildren about it, helps strengthen them emotionally.
“Taking this opportunity to spend time together in a way that you can’t during the regular rat race of life,” he sums up, “is really also a positive way of making lemonade out of lemons – whether it’s by means of family games, family projects, short outings.”