Anxiety or Comfort? How Parents can Affect Children’s Perceptions of Life in Lockdown
Updated: Mar 31
By Noa Kanter, Child Psychologist
I was only 5 years old the first time I was in some kind of quarantine. These were the days of the Gulf War, and in Israel, where I grew up, civilians were provided with gas masks and were asked to carry them around in case of a chemical attack. I remember how I decorated the box of my mask with colorful stickers. We were instructed to prepare a “sealed room” in our house- all the windows had to be covered with plastic and a wet cloth was to be put underneath the door. Whenever a siren went off, we all ran to that sealed room with our masks and had to stay there for the night. Sounds scary, huh?
Surprisingly, the five-year-old me has mostly pleasant memories of that time. Memories of togetherness with adults who took care of me and made me laugh. Memories of playing charades. Memories of all the attention a five-year-old could ever dream of.
I did not know when it was going to be okay. I only knew that the people around me would support me until that time would come. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that there were many moments of fear, boredom, anger and fights. I’m positive that I hated the mask I had to wear and struggled to breathe in. But negative memories simply did not stick.
When I’m reminded of my own personal experience that time, I am mostly filled with pleasant feelings of appreciation. A sense of belonging, and having shared experiences with others, can compensate for feelings of uncertainty and fear.
Growing up in Israel unfortunately meant experiencing many more unwanted situations of uncertainty throughout my life. As a therapist, these experiences shaped my compassion and deep understanding of feelings of anxiety, yet I also learned that dire times hold opportunities for developing resilience as families and as communities. You may not know it, but that screaming toddler of yours may be so grateful at the moment, just for having you around.
Advice for Parents
Since the COVID-19 crisis arrived, I have been helping my clients a lot with questions and worries about how to protect their children from the anxiety and uncertainty in the air. I explain that anxiety is the normal (and sometimes useful) human response to unfamiliar situations. Still, dire times can also serve as opportunities to develop coping skills. As a family you can attempt to make the best out of an unwanted situation. It is important to know how you can manage anxiety and not let it take over your life.
This is crucial because anxiety has a tendency to keep you over-worried and use up critical resources you need for dealing with the challenges that the situation creates.
Remember that as parents, you are experienced in dealing with uncertainty and long periods of time with your kids. Creativity is your middle name. Since we don’t know how long this will last, it is best to plan small goals – plan for the next few days, and set a time to revise your plan if needed. Don’t forget, you are already experts in solving unexpected problems and finding creative solutions!
Here are my favorite tips to help your children emerge from this with positive feelings about these uncertain times:
Reduce anxiety at home:
Explain what you know about the virus and how this will change your lives using concrete examples (e.g., we will not go to big events or concerts until we receive new information).
Leave speculation out of it. Don’t promise things you don’t know.
Try to limit your children’s media exposure as they may have trouble processing this information
Reassure them that some things will stay as they are. For example, “we stay in our own house, we still have family dinner, and game night.”
Keep in touch with friends and teachers online
Explain the importance of personal hygiene and find funny ways to follow the current hygiene rules (for example: sing a new goofy song for 20 seconds as you wash your hands).
Do not reprimand your children if they forget to follow these rules. Instead remind them what the rules are.
Invite them to ask questions and answer them using examples they can relate to.
Reframe this time together as a resource (“when do we have time to be all of us together at home?”) and encourage joint activities as a family.
Acknowledge your feelings
School closures add another stress factor to an already stressful situation: the worries about health and about the financial implications of the current situation are now topped with the worry of how to take care of your kids while they are home. Allow yourself to acknowledge that this is not a pleasant situation, even when you believe in its necessity.
Acknowledging the situation will not improve it, but it will help you understand why you feel upset, annoyed or angry. Understanding your feelings will help you deal with your children better.
Humor is always a great way to express and mitigate feelings of frustration. Sports, music, arts and crafts, and mindfulness activities are just a few other great ways to feel better given a situation you cannot change. Be empathetic towards other parents, even if they express feelings you disagree with. Sharing your feelings with others is key for resilience and optimal child care.
Tips on managing the time at home:
Build a daily schedule – decorate it with you kids and place it somewhere central. Kids LOVE to check activities off the list as the day progresses. A schedule is important as it provides a framework to relate to , it helps us organize, commit and stay away from our phone. A fun way to do this is to write each task for the day (including the fun stuff) on post-its and allow each child to structure their own day. This gives them agency and starts the day with a positive attitude.
Structure in movement time: great ideas here: https://whatmomslove.com/kids/active-indoor-games-activities-for-kids-to-burn-energy/
Use this time home to teach independence: include your children in the decision-making process for family activities. - Involve them in cooking, cleaning, and taking care of pets.
Ask your children if there is anything new they want to learn- there are so many online resources for learning new skills are out there. You may be surprised to learn that your children have wider interests that you expect!
Dealing with screen time- use screens effectively, prioritize educational games, online meetings with friends and learning apps. Explain that especially when you are home all day, it is important to keep our screen time active (learning, games and puzzles) rather than passive (TV) involving learning with real world hands on activities. This is a great time to redecorate your room, sort out old clothes or build something together.
Model self-care- take a bit of time for you to relax: define “quiet time” for everybody to rest. call a friend, do yoga, take a bath, Talk to a therapist if you are in distress. If you are raising children with a partner, make time for a conversation about sharing the burden. Do not try to assume the needs of your partner- ask them directly: what are the most important things for you at this time? Take the time to listen and find compromises. You can share the plan with your kids afterwards (for example: parent 1 will work in the bedroom till 13:00 and will play in the afternoon).
About the Author Noa Kanter is a child psychologist from Israel. In her work with children and their families, Noa strives to combine scientific knowledge from evidence-based research with every child's unique eco-system. She offers children and caregivers an investigative approach as a means of change. Noa specializes in: Autism, Family Therapy, Assessments, ADHD, School Interventions, Anxiety and Depression