In this time of social distancing to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and news changing minute to minute, many people are experiencing anxiety. Parents with children at home now that schools are closed also may wonder how best to use that time.
Mental-health experts say anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty, and by creating a routine, we can control its spread – just as staying home will help contain the spread of the virus.
“What I find is that the anxiety and stress has been parallel,” Marcia Slattery, MD, UW Health Child and Adolescent psychiatrist and director of the UW Anxiety and Disorders Program, said.
Slattery noted that people like to know what each day will bring. Children know when their classes will be, and when lunch and recess will come.
“It gives us a framework every day in which we operate,” Slattery added.
In these times, building a day-to-day routine for ourselves and our families can create structure.
“This is a huge piece for kids. Kids do much better with a routine,” she added.
Build a routine
Slattery recommends parents and their children create a basic schedule for each day, mapping out meal times and blocks each day for specific activities.
She emphasizes three types of activities to include – physical exercise, brain exercise and social connection.
Getting kids outside and moving will help anxiety and mood. Brain exercise – working on homework, reading or doing puzzles or assigned worksheets involving math or other subjects – should also be scheduled.
Finally, reach out to others. These can be older relatives to call or just texting friends and family.
And just having fun is essential.
“Laughter is hugely therapeutic. Telling jokes, telling funny stories, things that lighten up the conservation, is really important,” Slattery added.
She suggests a practical approach for planning a routine. Parents can create a schedule of each activity and then a list of choices for each one, or a menu, as she put it.
For instance, for physical activity time, the menu could include bicycling, walking, shooting hoops or doing yoga. Then allow the child to choose from the list.
“Put the schedule and list somewhere easy to see in the house,” Slattery said, such as the refrigerator door.
Mental health experts also say helping others can make us feel purposeful and can break the isolation.
Celeste Woodruff, LCSW, a child and family therapist with Dean/SSM Health, recommends putting your talents to use.
A good cook can prepare meals for an elderly person. Otherwise, people can consider helping out with yard work or taking garbage bins to the curb on pick-up days.
Calling elderly relatives can brighten up their day, as well “just to put that kindness in the world and be of service,” Woodruff said.
Make use of that time
Woodruff pointed out that two characters make up the Chinese word for crisis: emergency and opportunity. Now with more time, we have an opportunity to practice the self care we normally can’t fit into our busy days.
“It might be a good time start exercising or learn a new skill,” Woodruff said, adding that putting a plan on paper is better than just thinking about it. Learning a new instrument or preparing a difficult meal are some ideas.
This can also be a time for parents to teach their children new skills, such as tuning up their bikes for spring or folding laundry.
To connect with grandparents, Woodruff suggests children ask what their elders did when they were young, before the internet and the prevalence of organized sports. Doing so will also allow grandparents to feel useful.
Parents can also read with their children to see what others have done in isolation. She recommends Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and the “Diary of Anne Frank.”
“I think it’s a time to look historically. What did they do back in the day?” Woodruff said.
Holing up in the house all day can increase the sense of isolation. CJ Webster, a therapist with Stonetree Therapy in Waunakee, encourages people to step out of their front door.
“It’s safe to go out in the front of your house and realize there’s more to the world,” he said.
Taking hikes in area parks while practicing social distancing can also help decrease the feeling of isolation while getting some exercise in.
Webster and others also caution against immersing oneself in news coverage of the COVID-19 virus. Instead, they advise regulating news watching to about an hour per day.