Parents seek assistance from child counselors or “play therapists” for many reasons. Some of these parents seek assistance because their children are frequently anxious, and it is not uncommon for anxious children to fixate on something like storms. These children will check the weather multiple times per day and will become intensely distressed at the sign of one dark cloud in the sky.
There is a reason that anxious children often fixate on things like storms, traffic accidents, and natural disasters: these phenomena are outside of their control. Anxious children already feel out of control, so when they are faced with a true wild card like a tornado, it is like a neon sign that says, “You are powerless.” Child therapists like myself help children feel less vulnerable in the face of even those things that are outside their control.
The mind is a powerful tool. Viktor Frankl, a well-known psychologist who spent some time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, said that no matter what the circumstances, the last human freedom is to choose one’s attitude toward the situation. So, how does this apply to a child who is frightened of the very real pandemic that has his or her family routine turned upside down?
First, children can be empowered by age-appropriate knowledge. Begin the discussion by inviting your child to explain to you what he or she knows about the virus, masks, and related topics. Reinforce what your child knows by saying something like, “Wow! You know a lot about how to stay well!” A simple discussion like this one (without even adding much in the way of an educational lecture) will be reassuring to your child that he or she is informed and capable of staying safe.
Next, teach your child to always look for points of control. Even in the midst of a tornado, for example, an individual can control whether to stand still outside or to run take shelter in a basement or other similar location. Reframe your view of control by never saying “I have to…,” such as, “I have to wear a mask when I go to the store.” Instead say, “I CHOOSE to wear a mask when I go to the store, because I do not want to get anyone sick.” The words you use will help you and your children feel more in control.
Finally, encourage an attitude that looks for the silver lining around every cloud. When viewed in the Frankl sense, a positive attitude is highly empowering, because the choice to look for the good in a situation is something that cannot be taken away. Parents teach this principle through modeling the practice themselves. Imagine two children—one lives with parents who complain and look up the daily death rates while worrying aloud about the state of the world; the other lives with parents who have just as many concerns, but they choose to focus on the positive, and they find creative ways to make the most of the extra time their family has together. The situation is the same in both cases, but the experience is quite different in each instance.
Certainly, these are trying times in many respects. One young client of mine recently lost his grandmother, and the family was not able to have a real funeral. Other families are struggling financially. Those parents who can work from home feel grateful, but they struggle to balance the demands of work with trying to help their children who are now doing school from home. I have had some parents tell me that they are ashamed of how much time their child spends playing online games, but they do not know how to get it under control, especially during this time.
If your situation has gotten out of control, you might find it helpful to join the parents who have enrolled in the virtual parent training I offer, Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT). With this additional support, parents learn how to effectively manage their child’s behavior and make the most of each day. Whatever your personal journey as a parent, stay positive, relax, move on quickly from your mistakes, and focus on doing one enjoyable activity with your child, like a board game or bike ride, every single day. Finally, remember to take care of yourself FIRST– not as an afterthought or “if there is time left at the end of the day”- so that you can be your best possible self and your child’s best possible parent.