By Summer Batte, author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
For the past year, as we’ve avoided outings and people, visualized germs coating every surface and spewing from the mouths of our loved ones, my daughter has felt reassured. “Finally,” she says, “everyone is thinking like me.”
When you are parenting an anxious child, the last thing you need is the entire planet confirming her fears. And yet, here we are. People, places, and certain activities are more dangerous right now. We need to avoid them. But also, avoidance makes anxiety worse.
While I’ve made sure my family follows public health guidance to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, I’ve also spent a lot of time over the past 12 months trying to keep some boundaries on our COVID-19 anxiety. “Avoiding avoidance” hasn’t always been easy—we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have been under some of the harshest lockdown restrictions in the nation since March 2020. My daughter hasn’t set foot in a school in more than a year. She’s in high school now, though we tend to forget that as she logs in from the dining room. She’s seen just two friends in person all this time—and one recently had the audacity to move across the country. She has also stayed home from most errands because I haven’t wanted to expose more of our household than necessary. All of which means lately, my teenager has not had much practice meeting new people, navigating new places, or strengthening life skills outside our four walls—all things that give her anxiety and that we worked hard not to avoid in the Before Times.
Our county still has many COVID-19 cases, and we’ll continue to wear masks and make decisions to minimize the risks to ourselves and others. But with vaccines rolling out, we’re beginning to anticipate the return of social events, clubs, school and work, and I know I’ll need to model healthy ways to handle any anxiety that bubbles up from those changes. For my child, relearning not to consider people and places “dangerous” could be challenging. The first day of school jitters alone might be epic. So I’ll take some steps to help my family (and, yes, myself) adjust during this next, awkward re-opening phase.
Gradually Work Back into a Groove
Socializing can be difficult and exhausting for kids with anxiety. This spring, I’ll be encouraging more frequent (but still safe) time with friends so it won’t feel so abrupt to be with peers all day again. For younger kids with separation anxiety, there may be another layer to this—being apart from parents, possibly for the first time in months. Practicing little by little may smooth the path forward.
Still, even as we’re allowed to do more, I won’t be instantly filling our calendar. A series of packed days would tire out my teenager in the best of times. I’ll be keeping lots of at-home, low-key days on the board as we reacclimate to society.
Be Unnaturally Chill
I need to be “minimally worried woman”—obsession and overreaction are real things in this house. Even if excessive sanitization or performing relatively safe errands on my own might make me feel like I’m protecting my child better, I could be causing other problems.
As it becomes safer, I feel it’s important that my child practice navigating the world and gauging risk. Should we wash our hands after being at the grocery store? Absolutely. Should we change our pants? (Real question!) As I tell my daughter frequently, “only if you plan to lick your jeans.”
Keep Up Self-Care Routines
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that in order for my daughter to be healthy, I needed to be healthy. One benefit of our COVID internment has been the opportunity for me to get eight hours of sleep each night and physical movement every day. Adequate sleep and exercise lower anxiety.
As we anticipate returning to commutes and obligations outside of the house, I will do everything I can to protect the time I need for myself—modeling healthy adult behavior for a young woman who will inevitably face pressures to sacrifice her own well-being for others.
Talk Out Loud
As we take our brave first steps back into the world, I’m going to be more expressive—specifically, regarding what I’m nervous about and how it feels. Maybe my stomach will be in knots as we anticipate spending time with vaccinated relatives. That’s okay, and my daughter needs to know any feelings she has are normal as well.
When possible, I’ll reframe my anxiety as excitement, which Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks says can help us focus on all the ways a worrisome event could go well.
Keep Up New Hobbies
Bad news: We’re in year two of a pandemic. Good news: We can plant a summer garden again! New hobbies and more family time came about during lockdown, and we like it. Keeping some of those things up even as the ground feels like it’s shifting again—with more activities becoming possible and a return to work and school—might help maintain a sense of stability and familiarity.
Oddly, the things that might feel comforting during this next period of change could be the very things that seemed so strange a year ago.
I tend to fret about tomorrow, next week, and my five-year plan all at once. This is not appreciated by my daughter. Thinking about everything that may—or may not—happen in the next several months, let alone what next Halloween will look like, could make anyone want to bury her head in the sand.
When I find myself or my daughter becoming overwhelmed, I’ll take the advice of Narges Zohoury Dillon, executive director of Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, and encourage us both to focus on just the next few minutes or hours. If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we can’t control the way events will unfold. So let’s just focus on the next step.
Summer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the education and life she deserved, and also to help explain anxiety, therapy, and medication in a way that respected and trusted her very bright child’s ability to understand complex concepts. She homeschooled her daughter for three years, which led to even more research into learning styles, teaching methods, and the American education system. It also meant she had to relearn a lot of math. When she has downtime, Summer likes being with her family, reading, watching great TV, trying to perfect chocolate chip banana bread, and knitting (which her daughter made her learn). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Summer is the author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
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