Ask The Expert: Rebecca Alexander (COVID-19 Resource)

Indefinitely Quarantined? Tips on How Families Can Maintain Sanity 

It’s so easy to fall down the 24/7 coronavirus news rabbit hole. We get sucked into constantly checking our phones and keeping an incessant background buzz of TV news in our quarantine domiciles. While we need to stay informed, connected and involved, this hunkering down phase is currently indefinite, so it is also important to periodically disengage from the news and just be present for yourself and your family. For the latest Q&A Corner: “Ask The Expert,” Rebecca Alexander, LCSW-R, a therapist who specializes in families and adolescents in NYC, offered tips and strategies for parents on maintaining our sanity and supporting our kids during this “groundhog day” experience.

Q. How do you recommend parents deal with the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty we and our children face?

 A. Our kids are perceptive and overhear what we say, whether it’s intended or not. Our response to the world around us influences our kids’ response as well. If TV news is on in the background all day, regurgitating the same information, kids hear that. I encourage parents to carve out private time for themselves to process the news (make the amount of time you create for yourself to watch and process the news finite—i.e. 15 minutes) and keep it separate from your time with your kids. On your own, try to deal with things that cause fear and uncertainty, but otherwise, focus on the things that are within your control and be productive. It’s best to try to model your ability to live and sit with uncertainty.

Q. What are ways that parents can be productive? 

A. When we are productive, we feel more in control. You can incorporate various grounding games and techniques into your daily routine to counterbalance worry and encourage family bonding. For example, have your kids come up with a topic (i.e. animals, states, movies, etc.), go through the alphabet with each family member coming up with an example of that topic starting with A, then B, then C and so forth (i.e., Alligator, Baboon, Camel…). See how far your family can get through the alphabet. Or pick a color and have your kids name 10-15 things in the room that are that color. Play charades or games that require the whole family to participate. These are ways that can get families talking about things other than the news.

Q. How can we maintain structure amid household chaos when parents are working and kids need downtime from online schooling? 

A. Realistically, so much happens on the fly, and it’s easy to allow our kids to have more screen time than usual because it keeps them quiet and keeps them off our backs, but it doesn’t give them the opportunity to burn off steam or do things that are more creative that require them to use their brains or their imagination. Keeping to a routine can help children feel more secure and generally helps them to be better behaved. Make a schedule for you and your children with time built in for structured activities as well as free time. Let kids help create their daily timetable; they are more likely to take ownership of the schedule if they help make it. It’s okay if weekday schedule and structure looks different than weekend structure—weekends should allow for more free time or downtime for everyone.

Q. What are some ways to support younger children in lower school who are not as engaged all day in online learning as older kids?

A. Encourage kids to participate in non-screen time creative activities like coloring, writing a letter or drawing a picture for medical providers at a nearby hospital to show your appreciation, or journaling. But, screen time is not necessarily the enemy for younger children. It’s more about the content, and there are many apps and programs that are interactive and educational, like learning to code with Legos, learning addition and subtraction, or taking online guitar lessons.

Q. How can parents make time for themselves?

A. If there are two parents, you need to accommodate each other and delegate responsibility so that you can each practice self-care. Try to keep that self-care time consistent and finite, so that kids will come to know when “it’s Mommy or Daddy time.” (This writer just received a tip that family members should choose an article of clothing to give them the superpower of being invisible. Wearing it signals they are invisible and it is their alone time.)

Q. Do you feel increased time on social media will cause even greater rates of depression?

A. Kids will naturally fight for more screen time, but time needs to be monitored and limited. Parents should periodically do check-ins with kids about the technology they are providing. Ask at dinner (an easy way to talk as a family), “What do you enjoy most about being on social media? What do you not like about social media?” Part of encouraging your child to figure out who they are is encouraging them to have their own experiences and opinions instead of using social media to define and compare themselves. Anxiety and depression tend to build when kids don’t have an outlet to talk about their feelings.

It’s important for the kids to be able to vocalize their feelings about social media and life in general now.  Engaging your kids and asking them about their opinion lets them enjoy some sense of control and feel validated. Get kids talking by asking, “What food would you eat if you could only eat one food for a year? What are you most afraid of? What are you grateful for? What are you most excited to get back to once this quarantine is over? What is a goal you think you can attain over the next month and how will you achieve it?“

Set specific, manageable goals for yourself and have kids do the same. Don’t just say you want to be a better runner. Instead say, I want to run for 15 minutes a day. You’re more likely to follow through if it’s a tangible objective.

Q. Do you have any advice for families on how to maintain healthy relationships and keep mood swings in check?

A. When someone gets upset, we need to try to be more patient now, and know that being under one roof for an extended period of time is not easy. Our instinct is to fight back, but that generally just escalates the situation; sometimes you need to let that person express emotion. Look for creative ways to keep kids energized and engaged. Schedule exercise daily to burn off steam and release stress. Frustrated kids who need an outlet—consider letting them punch a pillow, time them to see how fast they can run up and down the stairs or back and forth from one end of the hall to the other, or draw a picture about what they are feeling, or keep a quarantine journal.

Q. How can we make the most of our family time together? 

A. This is actually a special period where most of us have the time to do all the things we usually complain about not having the time to do. It’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ So let’s take advantage of the time we have with each other.

Additional positive reinforcement and activities:

  • Be a strong role model for your children’s behavior;
  • Practice the type of safe social distancing and hygiene you are expecting from your kids, treat others or speak of others with compassion – especially those who are vulnerable or sick (children and teenagers are learning more from you than you realize);
  • Take a few moments at the end of the day to talk to your children about what positive/fun things they did that day to take care of themselves and/or their environment, to keep safe, and practice good hygiene;
  • Listen to your kids and allow them to talk openly;
  • Feel free to ask your children open questions and find out what they know or believe. Correct them or reassure them when necessary;
  • Be honest;
  • Always answer their questions truthfully. Think about how old your child is and how much they can understand;
  • Be supportive;
  • Your child may be scared or confused. Give them space to share how they are feeling and let them know you are there for them;
  • It is OK not to know the answers;
  • It is fine to say “We don’t know, but we are working on it”; or, “We don’t know, but we think…” Use this as an opportunity to learn something new with your child!
  • Use reputable or trustworthy sites like UNICEF or the World Health Organization;
  • One-on-one time, praise for being good, and consistent routines will reduce bad behavior;
  • Give your children and teens simple jobs with responsibilities. Just make sure it is something they are able to do. And praise them when they do it!
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