Dear Dr. L: How Do I Keep My Kids' Anxiety Down and Get Them Off Their Devices?
Dr. Lara Pence, PsyD, MBA, CEDS is a licensed clinical psychologist and Spartan's Chief Mind Doc. Each week she answers mental health questions from members of our community. This week's focus, with COVID-19 keeping children out of school, is on the challenge of raising kids during confinement. To ask Dr. L a question and be featured on Spartan LIFE, send her an email at email@example.com.
My Son Seems to Be Regressing. What Should I Do?
Parent: My 10-year-old son won’t put down his devices. Even when he’s homeschooling he finds his way to YouTube cartoons. And if I get him to step away from the screen, he complains nonstop. How can I get him to work independently on a project while I work or shower, or take care of my younger child? Are all kids regressing like this?
Dr. L: OK, let’s start with the most simple answer first. YOU control whether or not your child is in front of his devices, not him. If you want him off, take it from him. Period. We tend to make this way more complicated than it has to be, and I’ve had parents tell me time and time again, "I can’t just take it out of his hands." Well, actually, you can. If he needs it for school, put on the parental controls that prohibit endless scrolling or YouTube watching. Remove the app, change the passcode — do whatever it is that you need to do to make it hard for him, if not impossible. If you catch him on it, take away the privilege of him watching something later. This isn’t harsh parenting; it’s simple boundary setting that may make you feel uncomfortable, but it's absolutely necessary. Kids need guidelines. They need rules. Start setting them.
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As for the regressions that some parents are seeing, some of this is normal self-soothing behavior. Remember when your 3-year-old hadn’t sucked his thumb in months, but then watched a scary scene in a Disney movie and all of a sudden started popping that sucker back in? That’s a self-soothing behavior, and when kids feel afraid, insecure, confused, or are in the midst of a transition or change, they often revert to behaviors from months ago (or even a few years back) that make them feel good. So don’t panic. DO talk to your kid. Ask how they are feeling. and don’t take "I’m fine" for an answer.
Let them know it’s OK to be scared, worried, or confused. Maintaining a schedule or structure can also help with this because it provides a sense of security and predictability that they can begin to rely on and feel safe in.
My Kids Are So Anxious These Days. What Should I Do?
Parent: My kids tend to be anxious in general, but the unknown future has ratcheted up their nervousness. Last night my 5-year-old and 9-year-old started asking questions about when this will all end, when they will get back to school, and whether or not they will be safe. This whole thing seems to be taking a toll on them that I didn’t expect. What should I tell them? Aren’t they too young to understand?
Dr. L: Kids are incredibly perceptive, and they soak up information around them like a sponge. Kids that are prone to being more anxious — or seem to worry excessively — are going to be particularly absorbent during this time, so there are few things you can do to reduce their experience of anxiety. First of all, be honest, not avoidant. It’s obvious that we are going through a massive shift in this country, an economic, social, physical, and psychological one. Trying to downplay what’s happening isn’t going to work. That being said, we don’t want to dramatize or over-exaggerate the experience, either. When you talk to your children, let them know that this can be scary and things are a little uncertain, and you will do all you can to protect them and keep them safe. Come up with a list of ways that you are remaining safe and healthy, and refer back to this list when the anxiety begins to creep in.
Also, keep in mind and be observant of how often YOU are talking about this, and whether or not you may be exposing them to information that may not be helpful. For example, do you have the news on in the background when they're playing in the living room? If so, turn it off. Is the radio playing when they are doing their homework? If so, turn it off. All of the news that your children receive about this time can come from you, so pick and choose what kind of language they hear and don’t hear.
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Lastly, a useful activity to do before bed is to have your children create a worry box. Have them decorate a shoe box, or they could even decorate a glass jar. Each night before bed, have them write down anything they are worried about on a post-it note, and then have them stick it in the box. This teaches them the skill of defusion, which distances themselves from unhelpful thoughts. It’s an awesome tool to begin teaching and is very useful, even as an adult!
Remember, your kids being more anxious right now is somewhat to be expected. These are scary times. But this is a prime opportunity to build resilience and develop new mindfulness tools that reduce unhelpful thinking.