Sensory Spotlight: Vestibular (Balance and Spatial Orientation)

This is the fifth installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The vestibular system is responsible for the body’s sense of balance, motion, and spatial orientation. Children with vestibular processing issues may appear clumsy or hyperactive. They may also have issues tracking objects visually or performing fine motor tasks. 

The vestibular sense is a function of the inner ear and usually works in conjunction with sight. For instance, you’re able to ride in a car without feeling dizzy or nauseous because your vestibular and visual systems are sending matching signals to your brain; motion sickness occurs when these signals become mixed. The sensation of moving up or down in an elevator is an example of your vestibular system working in isolation.

Vestibular seekers may:

  • Seem to be constantly rocking, spinning, swinging arms and legs, or fiddling with objects.
  • Appear to have hyperactivity or behavioral issues due to constant running, jumping, or climbing.
  • Love roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, and spinning in circles, but never seem to get dizzy.
  • Prefer to be upside down and always seem to be hanging off furniture or doing somersaults.

Support seekers by:

  • Encouraging use of stimulating playground equipment such as swings, monkey bars, and slides.
  • Buying sensory-rich toys and gym equipment for home, such as jump ropes, hammocks, sensory swings, and balance beams.
  • Working with an occupational therapist to develop a sensory diet–a set of physical activities that can be done at home and are tailored specifically to your child’s sensory needs.

Vestibular avoiders may:

  • Avoid swings, merry-go-rounds, slides, and other playground equipment.
  • Feel off-balance or unsteady on slanted or uneven floors and tend to move extremely slowly as a result.
  • Become anxious when stepping over gaps in the floor or walking on transparent surfaces.

Support avoiders by:

  • Giving verbal queues regarding your surroundings and properly contextualizing the risks. (“There is a gap in the floor in front of the elevator, but it is smaller than your foot. You cannot fall in. Let’s step over it together.”)

Vestibular discrimination challenges may cause a child to:

  • Appear clumsy/uncoordinated or have poor posture.
  • Have poor depth or elevation perception.
  • Have difficulty determining head or body position and become easily disoriented.
  • Be unable to tell when he’s starting to fall and unable to catch himself.

Support discrimination challenges by:

  • Holding your child’s hand or arm while walking or playing to provide support and grounding.
  • Being cautious and attentive around bicycles, swings, climbing toys, and other playground equipment.

Executive Functioning: A Perfect COVID Project

Summer’s in full swing, and fall–particularly the return to school–looms large on the horizon. So many headlines over the past few months have focused on what went wrong with the quick shift to e-learning last spring: technological and logistical barriers, interrupted coursework, and social setbacks. There’s so much focus on what hasn’t been achieved that we seem to have lost focus on what our children can be doing with this time–learning new skills, creating good habits, and working on executive functioning.

Executive functioning is what gives us our sense of independence and self-sufficiency. It’s how we’re able to set and stick to a schedule, determine the steps needed to complete a task, set a goal for ourselves, and evaluate our own performance along the way. Many parents–especially special needs parents–tend to absorb these responsibilities for our children. Now that COVID has forced us to slow down a bit, take this opportunity to help your child develop the skills that will benefit him his entire life–no matter what COVID brings us this fall.

Focus on the parts, not the whole.

  • Help your child identify a simple, clear goal, such as cleaning his room, making his bed, or finishing his book report. Work with him to break the larger goal down into small, manageable chunks. You might divide the room into different sections, break the book report out by paragraph, or create a step-by-step list of how to change the sheets.
  • Give him as much choice as possible about the order and specific way in which he completes each task. (“What’s one thing you can pick up off the floor? What part of your book do you want to write about today? Should we change the sheets or pillows first?”)
  • You will need to take the lead at first, but work on slowly letting your child take over more and more of the work, planning, and decision making for each task. Wait until he’s mastered each step before moving on to the next one. Note: This will be frustrating. He will be slow, make a mess, and do it his way–but you must let him do it! 
  • Talk about strategies you use in your own life and how you’ve applied them to different situations. Have him tell you about a time he was able to complete a task and how he might be able to use what he’s learned. (“When I cleaned my room, I broke it down into small chunks. I can break my book report down into small chunks, too.”)
  • Use photos, checklists, or other visual aids to help illustrate individual steps in a larger process, and make sure to keep them in context–bathroom routines should be hung in the bathroom, homework reminders in the study area, etc.
  • Celebrate the small victories! Make sure to give your child plenty of praise and positive reinforcement. Call out each step he mastered in order to accomplish his overarching goal, and remember he’s worked very hard–never tell him any part of it was “easy” or that he “could’ve done it all along.”

 

Learn what motivates your child.

  • That being said, there is nothing wrong with some external motivation. A reward, even a small one, gives your child stakes in a chore or task he might otherwise try to avoid. Just be sure to focus on positive rather than negative reinforcement–reward him for completing a goal, but don’t punish him or take something away for failing to do so.
  • Whether your child is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, make sure his goal is clearly articulated and as specific and focused as possible. If his goal is, “I want to be better at math,” help him break it down into tangible steps or milestones, like “I want to get 100% on a math assignment” or, “I want to work with my math flashcards three days a week.”
  • Teach your child to make connections between his goals and the specific things he needs to learn or practice in order to accomplish them. Use open-ended questions and let him work out the process on his own as much as possible. (“What do you want to accomplish with your math today? What small things can you do to work on that? What worked well last time, and what can you do differently? How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?”)

Some final thoughts:

  • Your example is powerful. Talk with your child about things you want to accomplish in your own life, what aspects of the process you find rewarding or challenging, and how you’re evaluating and adjusting as you go.
  • Likewise, talk about failure and setbacks. Very few of us accomplish everything we set out to do on the first try. Emphasize that mistakes are expected, that they are how we learn, and that there is almost always a chance to try again.
  • Make sure your goals are right-sized. If your child’s having trouble getting a particular thing done every day, shift to just a couple times a week. Be flexible and try not to overwhelm him with an overly rigid schedule or an unrealistic timeline.

Struggling with Pandemic Parenting? Time to Dust Off Your Sensory Toolkit.

As many states continue to pause their reopening plans due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, so many parents, particularly those with special needs children, are once again feeling like the world has been turned upside down. Routines are broken, resources are no longer available, the structure and social supports of school are gone. All the hard work you’ve done to set your child up for success in class, in enrichment activities, with peer groups and friends–it’s all out the window.

We all know that sensory regulation is key to your child’s ability to self-regulate and that tending proactively to sensory issues can be a game changer. Remember, the deregulation and processing issues you’re seeing now are not new–you’ve managed them before, pre-COVID, and you have the tools to tackle them now, even with diminished support from the outside world. How can you recreate those supports in your home, with your resources, in a way that is only dependent on you? It’s time to dust off your old set of tools, roll up your sleeves, and rebuild.

Take stock of what’s been lost due to COVID-related closures.

  • Your child may no longer be spending time in certain physical spaces–not just classrooms, but also gyms, swimming pools, and playgrounds. Because many families rely on school or public access to these spaces, some of your child’s favorite physical or stimulating activities might not be available to her.
  • Your child may no longer be experiencing clear, multi-sensory transitions from one space or activity to another, such as hearing a bell to start and end each class or having time to recenter on the walk home from school. This can have a negative affect on her ability to manage her own activities and perceive the passage of time.
  • Your child may not be receiving the same amount of “social practice” and real-time feedback from friends and classmates. Similarly, she may not be receiving the kinds of personalized coaching, behavioral reinforcement, and social guidance provided by highly trained teachers, coaches, and counselors.
  • Finally, everyone in the family may be experiencing frustration and confusion as they are forced to adapt to new tasks, roles, and responsibilities. Parents used to working full-time and managing mostly weekends and after school routines are now finding themselves solely responsible for round-the-clock childcare, teaching, and housekeeping. Siblings used to seeing each other for only a couple hours a day are now forced to be constant companions and playmates.

 

Commit some time to re-learning your child’s sensory profile.

  • Identify the places, situations, and tasks where your child tends to struggle. Is she distracted by lights or loud noises? Does she panic when asked to give a friend or family member a hug? Does she gag when trying new foods? (Check out our ongoing Sensory Spotlight series for more on how to identify and support sensory sensitivities.)
  • Pay attention to how your child’s deregulation manifests. Is she constantly seeking your attention, even if it’s negative? Does she become withdrawn and anxious when overwhelmed? Is her bedtime routine a struggle every single night?
  • Get input from your child about what she needs and prefers throughout the day. When possible, give her choices about the way she performs certain tasks or the order in which she completes each step in a larger process. Let her decide whether she does her homework at the kitchen table or the desk in her room, the order in which she performs her bedtime routine, or the activities she does during quiet time.
  • Work on creating good transition habits and pay careful attention to how your child’s sensory processing can affect her ability to move smoothly from one activity to another. See our previous article on building good transitions for tips.
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Work on integrating more sensory experiences into your everyday life.

  • Have your child help with household chores that have a sensory component. Sweeping the floor and sorting laundry have a strong visual component. Cooking incorporates many different textures, smells, and tastes. Even something as simple as carrying in grocery bags can provide the pressure craved by proprioceptive and tactile seekers.
  • If you’re able and feel comfortable, take your child along on trips to the grocery store or other small errands. Bright lights, busy environments, and new sounds and smells can be great for visual, olfactory, and auditory seekers.
  • Get creative with your play. Matching, category, and “same or different” games with toys or other household items are great for children with discrimination issues. Take an afternoon and build forts, Lego cities, or even your own sensory table. Play soccer, catch, or frisbee to work on proprioception and hand/eye coordination.
  • If your child needs more help with regulation and stimulation, consider contacting an occupational therapist and asking about incorporating a Sensory Diet–a regimented, highly personalized set of physical activities that your child can do at home. (Learn more here.)

Sensory Spotlight: Tactile (Touch)

This is the fourth installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The tactile system is responsible for the body’s ability to perceive pressure, temperature, traction, and pain using receptors in the skin. Children with tactile processing issues may have an unusually high or low pain threshold and be very particular about the texture of their clothing, toys, and other surfaces.

Tactile seekers may:

  • Seek of frequent or prolonged physical contact with others.
  • Constantly touch or fiddle with various objects and surfaces.
  • Prefer tight, thick, or textured clothing.
  • Have a high pain threshold and not notice minor injuries.

Support seekers by:

  • Encouraging the use of fidget spinners, stress balls, and textured toys.
  • Encouraging play with sand, water, and sensory tables.
  • Providing a wide array of textures in toys, décor, and clothing.
  • Being conscious of your child’s high pain threshold and encouraging safe play.

Tactile avoiders may:

  • Dislike being touched, hugged, or kissed, even by parents.
  • Refuse to wear tight, scratchy, or “uncomfortable” clothing with seams or tags.
  • Dislike being messy or dirty and avoid playing in sand, dirt, or grass.
  • Dislike their hair or skin being wet and actively avoid swimming or bathing.
  • Avoid crowds and worry about being touched or bumped while playing.
  • Have a low pain threshold and cry or shout when brushing teeth or hair.

Support avoiders by:

  • Advising family and friends that physical contact is not desired.
  • Buying soft, loose fitting clothing.
  • Removing tags from clothing and turning uncomfortable items inside out.
  • Encourage using gloves or tools when engaging with unpleasant textures.
  • Introducing new textures slowly.

Tactile discrimination challenges may cause a child to:

  • Have difficulty distinguishing objects by feel.
  • Have difficulty gauging the temperature of objects or food.
  • Have difficulty performing tasks without looking, such as buttoning clothing or pedaling a bike.

Support discrimination challenges by:

  • Playing games that help your child identify objects by feel. Place a few household items in a “mystery bag” and have your child name the items without pulling them out of the bag. Once you see progress, add several groups of related items to the bag, such as school supplies or utensils, and have your child search for and identify related items.

Building Good Transition Habits

Think about a time when you took a few moments to move from one thing in your life to another. Maybe you had an important conference call or presentation, and you took ten minutes before it started to fold some laundry or walk around the block. Maybe you went for a run Friday after work to burn off some stress before settling in for a long weekend with the kids. Whether you were aware of it or not, you weren’t simply “clearing your head” before you moved into the next task–you were self-soothing, self-regulating, and engaging in good transition habits.

As we close the books on e-learning and start venturing out into reopening public spaces, we need to be extra conscious of how things have changed and how these changes are affecting our families. Sudden changes in environment or routine can leave some children, especially those with special needs, feeling overwhelmed, deregulated, and anxious. Below are some tips and suggestions for effectively managing transitions for your child. (See also: our previous post on managing deregulation.)

Talk about what’s changing.

  • Set your child’s expectations accordingly. Focus specifically on what tangible, practical things will be different for her and how her routine will need to adjust. What exactly is changing? What exactly will be different? What is staying the same? Having an idea of what to expect and what to count on can be hugely comforting.
  • Build your child’s confidence by talking with her about times things have changed in the past and how she was able to manage it successfully. (“I know starting fourth grade can feel hard and scary. It might feel like starting third grade last year. What did you do to help you get through it then? You sure learned a lot. Is there something you will do differently this time?”)
  • Give your child a manageable number of options and choices whenever possible. She shouldn’t necessarily be the primary decision maker, but she should know you value her input and want her to be happy. (“Would you like to have reading time before or after lunch today? Would you like to have apples or oranges with your snack?”)
  • When giving your child choices, focus on the desired outcome. For example, you might ask what she wants to accomplish with her e-learning program, and she might respond, “I want to be done by 3:00.” Instead of focusing on the narrow parameters of the goal, reframe it as an opportunity to work on a desirable outcome–in this instance, the desirable outcome would be developing good time management skills.

 

Create a transition ritual.

  • Rituals are a great way for children to learn to manage daily transitions, self-regulate, and develop the flexibility to adapt to new situations. Reserve small blocks of time between activities for jumping jacks, deep breaths, a walk around the block, or any combination of things that allow your child to calm down and recenter.
  • Have your child incorporate some physical component into her ritual if possible. Think of a basketball player shooting free throws or a baseball player stepping up to the plate–a few small gestures can be a powerful signal to the brain that it’s time to shift focus.
  • Create family rituals and traditions to mark major life events, seasonal changes, and weekly milestones. Start the summer with barbecue in the backyard, have a “fashion show” before the first day of school, or kick off the weekend with a Friday night movie. Having the whole family participate can be comforting to your child, and it can help her understand that changes in routine are a normal part of life and can be fun.
  • Practice what you preach! Be conscious of what changes are affecting you and learn to cope with your anxiety. Create a transition ritual for yourself and model it for your child. Be vocal about what you’re doing to get yourself ready for the next thing in your day. (“I need a few minutes to get ready for my meeting. I’m going to take a walk around the block and get some of my energy out.”)
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Control your environment.

  • To the extent you can, organize the day in blocks that work well for your child. Pay close attention to her interests, frustrations, energy level, and attention span. Don’t try to force too many small activities back to back if her transitions tend to be long and difficult, and be sure to build in frequent movement breaks.
  • Talk to your child about what activity is coming up next and give her verbal warnings, such as a five minutes until bedtime or ten minutes left to play outside. Keep in mind you’ll need to remind her more than once.
  • Take care to limit distractions and potential sensory triggers. Be mindful of light coming from windows or lamps. Make sure your child has earbuds or noise canceling headphones if she needs them, and teach her how to adjust both the volume and brightness on your laptop, tablet, or phone.
  • Arrange and rearrange your physical environment to best accommodate the task at hand. If possible, have different rooms for different activities, and move objects out of the area that aren’t needed. Put school computers and workbooks away on the weekend, for example, or put toys in a basket and take them out of the room during homework time.
  • Let your child acclimate to each space and activity in a way that makes sense for her. You might have a few Legos in the corner of her reading area to help her calm down from a busy morning, or she might need to run outside and burn off energy before settling down into dedicated reading time. Either way is perfectly fine–just be strategic.

Sensory Spotlight: Visual (Sight)

This is the third installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The visual system is responsible for the body’s ability to perceive and interpret one’s surroundings using visible light. Children with visual processing issues may have trouble recognizing slight variations in color or brightness, gauging the size and distance of objects, reading, or concentrating in bright, busy environments.

Visual seekers may:

  • Be attracted to shiny, moving, or spinning objects.
  • Be attracted to bright, flashing, or blinking light.
  • Prefer bright, busy or specific shapes, colors, and patterns.
  • Seek out stimulating movies and video games.

Support seekers by:

  • Scheduling time throughout the day to sing, clap, and make noise.
  • Providing a variety of colors and patterns in toys, décor, and clothing.
  • Encouraging play with toys and games that have flashing or blinking lights.
  • Encouraging play with flashlights or using nightlights at bedtime.
  • Allowing and encouraging a healthy amount of screen time.

Visual avoiders may:

  • Be bothered or overwhelmed by shiny, moving, or spinning objects.
  • Be bothered or overwhelmed by bright, flashing, or blinking light.
  • Prefer solid, muted colors and very simple patterns.
  • Avoid crowded, chaotic spaces and messy rooms.

Support avoiders by:

  • Being conscious of colors and patterns in toys, décor, and clothing.
  • Avoiding toys and games with flashing or blinking lights.
  • Turning lights down or off and keeping curtains or blinds closed.
  • Keeping lights on during screen time.
  • Encourage wearing sunglasses when needed.

Visual discrimination challenges may cause a child to:

  • Have difficulty recognizing or distinguishing between letters, numbers, and symbols.
  • Have difficulty judging the distance between himself, other people, and objects.
  • Have difficulty recognizing key characteristics of objects, such as size, shape, and color.
  • Have difficulty reading emotions or facial expressions.

Support discrimination challenges by:

  • Playing category and matching games to practice grouping like items together. (“Can you find everything in the room that is a circle? Every picture in this book that is related to sports or food? Every car on the road that is red?”)
  • Playing the “same or different” game to practice distinguishing between numbers, letters, and symbols. (“d and b, 5 and S, S and $–are these the same or different?”)
  • Playing outdoor games, such as catch or soccer, to practice coordination and gauging the distance between objects.
  • Having your child help with household chores that have a large visual component, such as matching socks or sweeping the floor.

Getting Your Family Ready for Reopening

“This [Covid] feels like having a newborn: You don’t know anything, you have to do everything, but so much feels out of your control. Everything is scary. As soon as you figure something out, it changes. There’s a lot of pressure and judgement. I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.”

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown, there’s a lot of excited talk about finally “opening up” and getting back to a “new normal.” Some states are opening businesses and public spaces quickly, while others are opening in slow, deliberate phases. There is no single roadmap for this, no one set of guidelines, and so many of us still feel confused, exhausted, and out of control in ways we might not have felt since we first became parents. 

But remember, having a newborn allowed you to develop some amazing strengths as a parent: you were able to live in the moment, adapt quickly to new situations, prioritize (sometimes ruthlessly), and accept what you could not control. Reconnect with those strengths and lean into them as the world starts to reopen. With a little planning and a lot of communication, your family can make this transition in a way that feels thoughtful and safe for everyone.

Things to consider:

  • Telehealth availability is high, but so is the demand. Start making appointments–both virtual and in-person–for healthcare, therapy, and other family services now, even if the actual appointment is a ways off.
  • Some places may be quieter or less crowded than usual. However, keep in mind that social distancing and more thorough cleaning procedures might mean some things take a lot longer than usual, and some areas may be restricted. Don’t hesitate to call ahead and let providers know about your child’s particular needs.

 

Talk about it.

  • Learn how to read your child and understand to what level he needs the situation explained to him. Be attentive to both verbal and nonverbal communication about his level of understanding and his feelings about what he’s hearing (this could be vastly different for every child). Put things in direct, black and white terms as much as possible.
  • A plan is the best antidote for anxiety, so talk to your child about what to expect when you leave your house. Prepare him for how people might look (masks and gloves) and how people might behave (anxious or standoffish). Make sure he knows what’s expected of him in regards to distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.
  • Stress the importance of respecting others’ choices in regards to social distancing. For example, Grandma’s not crazy for continuing to quarantine–she’s older and therefore higher risk, plus she might have other risk factors that lead her to be more cautious or anxious. On the other hand, you might know someone who has to return to work or is choosing to engage in more social activity than your family’s comfortable with. This is a situation that makes people emotional and defensive, and it’s not helpful to argue with others or be confrontational.
  • Talk to your family about how to manage transitions–into summer, into reopening, etc. Develop good “transition habits” as a family. All the rules of transitions apply: stay regulated, ease yourself into it, try not to force too many “new” things at once. (More on this next week!)

Take it slow.

  • Choose your family’s “safe” social circle and expand it slowly. Think of it like concentric rings, with the core/innermost circle being your household. The next innermost ring might include grandparents or your next door neighbors, and the ring beyond that might include cousins, friends, or coworkers. Make sure everyone in each ring agrees to the same “rules” about social distancing. Be explicit with your child about how you choose the members of your circle and what the rules are.
  • When you’re ready to start going out, apply this same idea to stores, offices, and establishments. In this instance, the innermost circle would be grocery stores, doctors, and other truly essential businesses. The second ring might be department stores and barbershops, and the ring beyond that might be restaurants.
  • Go on the first few outings alone if possible. This will let you get a lay of the land, acclimate yourself to the new way of doing things, and be better prepared to set your child’s expectations. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to friends, neighbors, or the establishment itself and ask what to expect.
  • Check in frequently when you’re out with your child, and have an exit plan ready in case he needs a break or is misbehaving. If he does start to become frightened or overwhelmed, remind him you can both leave right away, with no consequences or punishment for him, and try again later. 
Shift Expectations

Shifting Expectations and Redefining Success

In our last post, we talked about some ways to manage your stress and get ahead of your anxiety during COVID-19. This week, we’re focusing on another way to prevent anxiety: getting rid of unrealistically high expectations and releasing yourself (and your child) from pre-COVID standards.

It’s important to remember that “lowering” your expectations doesn’t mean you’re expecting less from yourself or that you’re dropping the ball. To the contrary, giving yourself permission to redefine and reorder your priorities allows you to make room for things that allow your family the flexibility, regulation, and resiliency to be truly successful.

Adjust your expectations.

  • Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • This is a hard, scary time, and you are one person who cannot do everything you’re used to doing in a given day or week. Give yourself permission to let some things go.
  • Accept that you can’t predict or control what the next few months will bring. Take things one day at a time and don’t spend valuable energy worrying about when schools will reopen or whether you’ll be able to travel for your summer vacation.
  • Forgive yourself for “falling off the wagon” with homework, to-do lists, or fitness routines. Focus instead on how quickly you can get back on track, and let the getting back be your marker of success. Expect curveballs and disruptions–they will come.
  • Give yourself and your child permission to say no to socially distanced activities that feel stressful or draining on a given day. You don’t have to attend every Zoom playdate, birthday drive-by, or virtual happy hour.
  • Say all of this out loud–your child needs to hear it. Be explicit about what tangibles are changing, such as how we do our work, how much work gets done, and how we connect with friends and family. Let him know it’s okay to let some things go for now and that you don’t expect him to be perfect.

 

Check your own baggage.

  • Let go of the idea of the “super parent.” Parenting during quarantine means you’re a lot more than just Mom or Dad: you’re also a teacher, coach, therapist, housekeeper, chef, nurse, and play date. Learn to be okay with dropping the housekeeper today so you can be a better teacher–or giving the teacher a day off so you can be a better play date.
  • Don’t get hung up on your idea of what your child’s experience should be. Maybe you have great memories of your childhood birthdays, full of expensive gifts and parties with all your friends, but social distancing means your child’s birthday can’t have those things. Instead of getting upset about what’s missing, try to find a new, creative way to make him feel celebrated.
  • Be proactive in managing your stress and anxiety. (Last week’s post has some great tips!) Keep in mind that blow-ups and lashing out are usually the result of feeling overwhelmed and are rarely about whatever’s happening in this exact moment.

Redefine success for your family.

  • You can’t perfectly recreate pre-COVID routines, but you can still craft successful days that focus on family and whole-child development. Pre-COVID goals might have been getting to school on time, completing homework, and going to bed without a meltdown. Shift your focus from specific tasks to things like staying regulated, keep learning, staying sane as a family, and having some fun together.
  • Likewise, think about redefining academic success for your child. A successful day might not mean following the pre-set curriculum and getting 100% on every assignment–it might not even mean completing every assignment. A modified COVID curriculum might include things like self-regulation, independence, and self-directed learning.
  • Remember, no child has 100% successful days, even when things are normal. Distraction, irritability, and overstimulation happen at school, too, but these may seem amplified now that you’re responsible for their “school day.”
  • Instead of focusing on what COVID has disrupted, look at what this experience can offer: more time together as a family and more time for self-led interest activities.
  • Keep experimenting! As long as you’re still figuring out what works, dropping what doesn’t, and adapting to new challenges, you are successful.

Managing Anxiety in Lockdown

COVID-19 continues to dominate the news, and even the luckiest among us–those who continue to have income, flexibility, and health–are feeling stretched and stressed in ways we haven’t before.

Like most parents, the vast majority of your energy over these past few weeks has probably gone to helping your children cope with changing schedules, e-learning protocol, and anxiety about the “new normal.” Making time to focus on your own emotional health is likely at the very bottom of your list, but it’s far from a selfish or frivolous act–it’s actually one of the best things you can do to care for your family. Think of this time like being on a turbulent airplane: it’s rough and scary, but you have to pause and put on your own mask before you can be any help to others. Only by learning to manage your own anxiety–by taking the time to put on your own mask–can you truly show up for your children as a model of safety, generosity, and resiliency.

Get ahead of your anxiety.

  • Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation. If you don’t want to meditate, try running, swimming, playing guitar, or drawing–anything that keeps you focused and physically engaged while allowing your brain to “turn off” for a while.
  • Make it a priority to take care of your body. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, eat a varied diet, exercise frequently, and try to get outside for a few minutes each day.
  • Be mindful of your media consumption. Try to limit checking news apps to once or twice per day, and don’t have cable news constantly going in the background.
  • Allow yourself to engage in some “silly” self-soothing behavior, as long as it’s safe and within reason. If it makes you feel better to make a family budget in Excel, reorganize the bookshelf, or alphabetize your spice rack–do it.
  • Take some time each day to sit down as a family to focus on what is good, certain, and predictable. (“Today we are safe, we are loved and able to be together, and we have plenty of good food to eat.”)

 

Learn to cope with panic attacks.

  • If your anxiety does lead to a panic attack, verbally acknowledge what is happening and recognize that you’re not in physical danger. (“I am anxious and am having a panic attack. I am safe. This will pass.”)
  • Focus on getting control of your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, so that your belly expands, and exhale through your mouth. Repeat until you start to feel better.
  • Make a conscious effort to relax your body. Starting at your head, focus on alternately tensing and relaxing each successive muscle group until you’ve worked all the way down to your toes.
  • Don’t let fear scramble your brain. Remind yourself that you are in control and think about other times you were able to overcome difficult or stressful situations.
  • Every few minutes, rate your level of anxiety on the 1 to 10 scale. This will force you to come back to the present moment and see that your anxiety is slowly getting better.

Be generous with the ones you love.

  • Check in with friends and family members, especially those prone to anxiety or depression. Ask them to rate their own feelings using the 1 to 10 scale, and focus on being present and empathetic.
  • Be aware of what produces anxiety in others, and don’t let your coping become someone else’s trigger. Don’t insist on a two-hour family budget meeting, for example, if it will soothe you but leave your spouse even more stressed.
  • Try to have a kind, generous interpretation of others’ actions. For example, your kids are probably interrupting your conference call because they need your help, not because they’re trying to annoy you and make your day difficult.
  • Keep in mind that children process stress differently, and acting out may be a sign of fear or anxiety. Work on helping your children name their feelings, and avoid punishing them when you’re stressed or anxious.
  • Try to find comfort and meaning in the ways you can help others. Organizing a food donation, writing letters to quarantined grandparents, caring for a pet, even just warming up some coffee for your spouse–serving others is a great way to get out of your own head and see the positive impact you have on others.