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How To Ease Kids' Anxieties With Distance Learning

Many of our kids are struggling with overwhelm, frustration, and behaviors during these demanding times. We reached out to the founder and clinical director of CARE-LA, Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D, to find out about strategies we can implement from home to support our kids as they weather distance learning and other challenges. Here, she walks us through some coping strategies to reduce anxiety, upset, and Zoom fatigue with characteristic insight, deep knowledge, and some occasional (much-needed!) humor.

3 Things You Can Try Right Now:

  • Lessen Zoom overwhelm by turning off the camera, hiding self from view, or pinning the teacher’s (or a friend’s) feed.

  • Practice body scans, brain hacks, and targeted breathing to prevent the fight-or-flight response.

  • Try different coping strategies: sit with your child’s feelings, celebrate with them when they work through their anxiety, and practice working through our own frustrations out loud so they can learn from our mistakes.

Can you share some tips to help our kids deal with the chaos, stress, and overwhelm of so many online classes and therapies?

We feel stress and mental exhaustion after a period of video conferencing because it requires more work than face-to-face communication. With video, we don’t have access to the speaker’s full body language — we have to read social cues without it. That’s hard for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for kids on the autism spectrum, and compounds the problem. The first thing I recommend to lessen the overwhelm from all the competing stimuli — commonly known as Zoom fatigue — is to turn off the camera. (If you need to, ask your school’s psychologist to advocate for your child and get the teacher’s permission for the student to turn off their camera.) Some kids are very self-conscious (compulsively checking and fixing their appearance, for instance), so it can also be helpful to use Zoom’s option to hide self from view so they can’t see themselves. A third option is to tag or pin the teacher’s feed (or the paraprofessional, or your child’s BFF) so they only have to focus on one face at a time.

You can also try your best to space out Zoom sessions. If kids are getting their socialization time over Zoom as well, be sure to have them do something else in between sessions instead of jumping from school to the socialization activity. Sometimes scheduling a phone call is more effective than a Zoom call. In general, we’ve adapted to not having visual stimuli with the phone, and we’re more accustomed to paying attention to audio cues; this also decreases eye strain and can provide the sensory break that many kids need.

Let’s talk about anxiety. What can we do to help our kids manage it?

Stress and heightened anxiety activate the amygdala in the limbic system, the fight-or-flight area of the brain. Sometimes this means kids run away (flight) or shut down (freeze), or they can push back or become agitated (fight). It’s helpful to view your child through the fight-or-flight lens rather than seeing their behavior as oppositional — this gives you the space to be compassionate. If you feel your child is being defiant, you’re likely to feel more helpless; you might lash back, and that’s helping no one. You have to see their defiance as an expression of anxiety.

I take a lot of my theoretical framework from integrative medicine, which looks to prevent disease before it needs to be healed, so I try to do the same thing in my work with kids. In this case, we try to prevent the fight-or-flight response as opposed to fixing it after the fact. Once that response is engaged, it’s much harder to reach children — they’ve disconnected from their frontal lobe and are working from their limbic system, and it takes much longer to cool down from that.

There are certain things we can do to prevent this response:

  • Set a timer for every hour and take a break to do a body scan: have the child “scan” from the top of their body all the way down, looking for tension and inviting it to soften and release.

  • Try a “brain hack”: encourage your child to squeeze the muscles in their body really tightly and then release, going section by section from the toes to the neck and face (progressive muscle relaxation). This circumvents the fight-or-flight impulse and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system instead.

  • Practice 4-7-8 breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7, exhale for 8. It is important that the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation, because the parasympathetic nervous system is activated with exhalation.

If these exercises are beneficial for your child, you can find more of them in a great book called Ready . . . Set . . . R.E.L.A.X.: A Research-Based Program of Relaxation, Learning, and Self-Esteem for Children.

Do you have any favorite coping strategies to use when our kids are upset?

When our kids are upset, a lot of us try to fix it, but this can make it worse in the long run. Reflective functioning — or naming the feeling and evaluating it — works for some kids, but for others, it can activate them in a negative way. If this doesn’t work for your child, try to hold space for them instead of trying to fix it: make space for them to feel upset. Look them in the eyes with love and try to connect with them, sit with them, and let them realize that they can work through their pain and that they don’t need you to rescue them. It’s so important for kids to experience pain and sit with their discomfort. The other day my daughter fell and I said, “Do you want some candy?” Afterward I thought, “Eh, that’s not the best method. Just sit with her, let her cry and feel the pain and watch it dissipate.”

Sometimes you’re not going to choose the best option. Let’s give ourselves the occasional right to be a little lazy — sometimes you can phone it in a little bit. You don’t have to be perfect. And remember that you can make meaning from anything, even your own mistakes! Take time to reflect and have a discussion with your child when they’re calmer. If you always rescue your kids, it can lead to them not being able to deal with discomfort (which in turn can lead to seeking reassurance or self-soothing through other less healthful means, like overeating or other compulsive and addictive behaviors). Allowing them to feel uncomfortable and sitting with them while they feel it is such a healthy, important life skill, and I can’t emphasize it enough.

That said, every child has something that will make them feel better: some kids like to listen to music, pet their cat or dog, or do some deep breathing. Take some time and come up with a self-soothing menu together, write it out, and keep it somewhere they can see it to remember what they can do when they feel like they need to check out (or in, as the case may be).

I can’t stress enough how important it is to catch your kid doing things that you feel are healthy for them and celebrate it verbally — praise them and ask them how they did it. For example, “You’re working so hard, you didn’t give up when I could tell that Zoom class was taking a lot out of you — what did you do to stay in there?” Then put their answer on the self-soothing list. Almost all kids thrive on hearing positive verbalization from their parents or other caregivers about their behaviors, and of course, we don’t want to only reflect on what they did when it went well. You can ask them, “Did you not give up? Did you work really hard? Did you make a mistake and overcome it? Did you use courage? Did you use deep breathing?” Let them know that we don’t care about the test score, we care about how they got through it. Celebrate grit — notice what it took for them to get there, or when they try something new, and make a big deal about it. (For more on this, read Mindset by Carol Dweck.)

Finally, it’s important to remember the value of modeling self-reflection when we screw up. When I get really annoyed with my children, I try to use my frustration as a modeling moment: I name my feelings and say, “I’m really frustrated because we’re not understanding each other right now, so I’m going to do a 4-7-8 breath because I don’t want to yell.” By saying that out loud, I’m modeling for my kids what they need to do and how to engage in self-talk, and I’m giving myself the power of doing something to help my kids instead of yelling. I try to disconnect from the thoughts I’m having, like This sucks! I can’t stand this right now!, etc., so I can flip the script and turn it into a moment of growth for everyone. And then if I do say something I’m not proud of, I can be reflective and say, “I don’t like that I just said that, you don’t deserve to hear that — I was feeling overly frustrated.” It’s liberating for us as parents to feel like we can do something good after we screw up: self-reflect, admit our flaws, and start over. I’m all about turning screw-ups into something we can be proud of — this time in history is a bevy of chances to do that over and over again each day.

3 Things You Can Try Right Now:

  • Help your child focus by having them move their body during Zoom classes, reducing distractions, and taking regular eye and body breaks.

  • Practice “good enough socialization” with a sibling, pet, or even bug-hunting in the yard — interacting with any living creature is a boon right now.

  • Spend some time thinking about how to better manage your own stress! You can start by watching this TED talk and doing this meditation video with your kids.

Can you give us a few strategies to help our kids stay calm, focused, and engaged during online learning?

To help our kids focus, we can try certain things that enlist their bodies:

  • First, create an environment that’s comfortable. Many of us thought that social distancing measures might end in a couple months, but now we know it’s here for a while — so invest in a comfortable chair and make sure the screen is at eye level and that your child’s feet touch the floor, if possible.

  • Research indicates that when a subgroup of kids with ADHD have something to do with their body, they process information better — so consider trying a standing desk (I know that some of these are big asks), using a yoga ball instead of a chair, or even putting a stationary bike in front of the computer.

  • Add sensory elements — for example, squishies, silly putty, or Speks magnets.

  • Remind your child to look away from the screen. The American Optometric Association recommends the 20-20-20 rule: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes by looking at something 20 feet away. When you’re on Zoom, you’re not blinking as much, which can lead to eye strain, distractibility, and irritability.

  • Use visual timers to remind your child to get up and stretch in between meetings, or speak with their teacher about working in times to stretch. I’ve done that with a number of schools now, and it’s really helpful.

  • During breaks, encourage your child to go on a walk with you, get outside, or do some sort of yoga video (check out Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube!). It’s so important to get their bodies moving and get fresh air.

Finally, remember that screen time is screen time — in addition to contributing to screen overload, screen time can have negative impacts on behaviors. We know from the world of psychology that rewards work better for behaviors than punishment — so try to limit screen time and instead, use it as a reward.

What about the S-word — socialization? For many of our kids, especially those who are medically fragile, the fallout from the social isolation of only seeing peers on a screen is pretty huge.

The truth of the matter is that socialization feeds the brain — and unfortunately, socialization with peers is all about calculated risks right now. If you can pod with another family, it makes a huge difference. Granted, it can be hard to find people who feel the same way about the current situation as you do. But we’re social animals — socialization is necessary for our survival — and not having quality social time definitely impacts our mental health.

That said, while it’s important to practice peer interactions, any face-to-face interactions — with parents, siblings, caretakers, even animals — are going to feed that social part of the brain. It’s important to remember that socialization is not so black and white: i.e., either they’re with their friends or they’re done for. There’s a term in psychology called the “good enough parent” (which comes from British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott), so we could call this the “good enough socialization.” We need to get some of that social activity going in our kids’ brains.

Obviously, it would be ideal to try to get the best peer interaction by podding with a family that has the same values as you, or having social distance playdates if kids are in a place where they can regulate and not jump on top of the other kid. But this doesn’t work for everybody. You can try a social-distance playdate where kids do an art project, or have a movie night with blankets positioned six feet apart. If you host a Zoom playdate with a peer, maybe the kids can make something or bake a cake simultaneously — this also pairs a physical activity with social time.

Some other options:

  • If your child isn’t able to socially distance, you might consider getting them a pet if they don’t have one. I realize that this is a (very!) tall order, but socializing with any animal can have therapeutic value. Get your child outside hunting for bugs: really, anything that involves another living being helps in this time.

  • Quality time together is more important than quantity. We’re with our kids so much, and many of us are pushed to the brim, so it’s important to remember that you don’t have to do a 2-hour art project to spend QT together. Try singing a song while they brush their teeth, for instance, to bring fun into something we still have to do every day.

  • Here are a few other things you could try to shake up your routine — I call this my bonding activities menu:

  • Create a daily journal — this can be a drawing, a few sentences, or stickers that show how your child is feeling

  • Watch the sunrise or sunset

  • Go stargazing

  • Cook a favorite meal (or dessert!)

  • Start a blog (or phlog!)

  • Explore someplace new — whether it’s around the corner or a country on National Geographic Kids

  • Research an unfamiliar topic online (can you keep a pet lizard?)

  • Rearrange your furniture

  • Write a poem together

  • Play cards (Uno is a favorite around here!)

  • Have a picnic in your backyard

And then there’s the other S-word: stress. Any advice?

Hold this whole thing lighter than you think you need to hold it because a stressed-out parent is going to make for a less effective parent. It’s important that we realize it’s not whether you’re going to mess your kids up, but how! I’m going to mess my kid up and if they have the resources, they’ll go to therapy! My favorite supervisor used to say, “I have two savings funds: one for college and one for therapy.” If we accept that we will mess them up in some way or another we’ll breathe a little easier, and we’ll have more energy to be a better and more present parent. Sometimes we’re going to find ourselves in a bad place, and that’s okay — just say to yourself, “Right now it’s like this.”

I just recorded a meditation for kids on how to make a safe space inside their minds that they can visit whenever they need it. Watch it with them, maybe even do it with them!

And then there’s a TED talk every parent should watch called How to Make Stress Your Friend. In it, psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about a study that found that people who believe stress is harmful (and most of us do, because that’s what science has told us) have a higher incidence of morbidity when they encounter a major life stressor. We should think about how to use this placebo effect — if we know that stress can make us stronger, this knowledge will impact how we respond to the stressor.

The stories we tell ourselves play a huge role in our physical bodies, the energy we bring into a room, and really everything we do. So pay attention to the stories you’re telling yourself — about yourself, about this experience, about your children, and about the importance of their education right now. Yes, their education is important, but it’s not as important as their mental health and their relationship with you. If you notice you’re telling yourself a negative story, I have a little saying: “Don’t be upset that you thought it, be proud that you caught it.” This way you won’t go down a spiral of other critical self-talk. We need to be aware of our patterns in order to change them, and noticing your inner critic is the first step to overcoming it and transmuting it into the loving voice we all deserve to hear during this unprecedented time.

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