As the COVID-19 crisis continues on, the sustained period of disruption is taking its toll on all of us. Even while we are slowly inching toward reopening, schools are remaining closed for the rest of the year. Our children’s lives will continue to be disrupted, even if we are able to slowly start shopping or getting haircuts again. Anxiety has been simmering just under the surface of society for months now, and none of us have fully escaped its effects. We could all benefit from practicing coping skills.
Children may be having more tantrums. Sleep difficulties, regression (for example, potty accidents when potty training was previously established), trouble focusing, and being easily frustrated are also common stress responses. Stress manifests itself differently in each one of us, young and old. The activities below can help us cope with stress by decreasing the physiological stress state. Each coping skill will work better for some than others, and we recommend trying several until you find what is most effective for your child. This post is meant to provide only general ideas. If you or your child feel as though you are not able to cope with everything that is happening, we encourage you to seek mental health help by calling the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, or by texting “PA” to 741-741.
Deep Breaths, in Game Form
Deep breathing can be a wonderful tool to use to help our bodies release tension and calm down. But it is NOT easy for children to slow down and truly take slow, deliberate breaths, especially when they are stressed. Try these activities to help encourage deep breathing in relaxing, fun ways.
1. Coffee filter Butterflies
This activity is both a craft and a coping activity!
Craft: You’ll need coffee filters, markers or watercolors, and pipecleaners. Decorate the coffee filter like a butterfly by painting with the watercolors or coloring with markers. Once dry, gather the butterfly in the middle and secure with a short pipecleaner. Be sure to fold over all of the pipecleaner ends so there are no sharp points exposed! Try to spread the wings out as much as possible.
Coping: Once your butterfly is complete, have your child lie on their backs. With the butterfly resting over their mouth, have them take a deep breath, blow out, and see how high their butterfly can fly! Or, if that is too difficult, have them place the butterfly on their belly and use deep, slow “belly” breathing to watch the butterfly move up and down. Or, place the butterfly on a table and have them blow the butterfly across the table while standing or sitting at the table.
2. Bubble Mountains
Place some water and a dash of dish soap in a water bottle or similar small container (a glass also works). The container should be no more than one third full. Have your child breathe in through their nose, then blow out through a straw to form bubbles. Continue the exercise to watch the bubble mountain grow! The slow, sustained exhales needed to blow bubbles are great for encouraging deep breathing.
If you prefer blowing traditional bubbles outside with a wand, this can have a similar effect. Encourage your child to see how many bubbles they can blow with one breath.
Movement also helps release stress and tension. Activities that provide increased input to the proprioceptive system (the sensory system located in our muscles and joints that tells us where our bodies are in space) are especially calming for some people. This system is activated by activities incorporating weight bearing, compression on joints, and deep pressure. Here are a few ideas:
1. Wall Pushes
Find an empty space along a wall, and have your child face the wall about an arm’s length away from the wall. Pretend the wall is falling down, and your child needs to hold it up! This is a great activity for kids who like superheroes, as they can pretend to be their favorite character saving the day! Be sure to hold each wall push for a count of 20 seconds.
2. Animal Walks
Walk like a bear, scurry like a mouse, walk like a crab. Activities that encourage crawling or weight bearing on the hands provide a fun way to exercise while also providing increased proprioceptive input.
There are a lot of resources available online for animal walk ideas. Here’s just one: https://www.cbc.ca/parents/learning/view/12-animals-walks-for-kids-to-get-moving
3. Blanket Burrito
This is a great activity for children who love tight hugs. To set up, lay several blankets flat out on the floor, piled on top of each other to create layers. Have your child lay on the top blanket, at one end, with their head off of the blanket and their arms by their sides. Next, have your child hold the edge of the blanket (or help them get started) and roll toward the other end of the blanket so that they become wrapped up in the blanket. When they get to the other side, help them get the next blanket layer started. Continue going back and forth, adding blankets to your burrito, until all are wrapped. When done, either unroll layer-by-layer or wiggle out of the burrito.
Nothing about the last few months has been predictable for any of us, and you should not feel pressured to structure your child’s days down to the minute. But, children benefit from predictability in their daily rhythm, and now is a great time to introduce new family activities to help achieve this. Here are some ideas to help you get started:
1. Theme nights
Take advantage of family dinner time to have fun. Have theme nights and dress in costumes for dinner, and give out “prizes” for the best costume categories. Create a predictable schedule. Maybe it’s Wacky Wednesdays, or Flashback Fridays. Pull out old Halloween costumes, or the kids can be creative and try their hand at costume design! The whole family can get involved!
2. Designated Worry Time
If your child has been expressing a lot of worries about the virus, it can be helpful to create a designated “worry time” to talk about them. This might occur several times throughout the day, but make sure that the time is specific and communicated clearly to your child. For children who don’t understand time or who use visual schedules, Worry Time can be added to their activity schedule so that it is still structured without relying on clock time. The trick to Worry Time is that worries are ONLY discussed during these designated times. Worry Time should be about 15 minutes long, and during this time parents must patiently listen to your child’s fears and validate all of their feelings. Do not dismiss any worries, but provide calm reassurance. To help keep fears from consuming your child’s thoughts throughout the day, do not discuss worries at any other time. Use a response like, “It is not Worry Time yet, our next Worry Time as at 1:00 pm” when a worry-related question is asked. Of course, this does not apply to emergent concerns like an injury or physical need. Creating a regular schedule of predictable Worry Times helps kids know that their concerns WILL be heard and addressed.
3. Your Own Special Quarantine Activity
Maybe it’s baking together on Monday’s, or playing board games on Tuesday’s. Crafts, puzzles, movie nights, anything at all that brings you together is wonderful right now. Children can help decide which activities they want on your schedule. This will provide predictability as well as opportunities for strengthening relationships and creating positive memories during these challenging times. Some of these activities may turn into lifelong family traditions. Others will be nothing more than something to look back on and smile at how you got through this time together.
We hope you and your child find some of these coping skills helpful. For additional free resources on parenting in quarantine, join our facebook group. If your child’s difficulties are interfering with participation in daily activities, contact us to determine if an occupational therapy evaluation may be beneficial.
CDC Resources on Stress and Coping during COVID-19: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fprepare%2Fmanaging-stress-anxiety.html
PA Department of Health Resources on Mental Health: https://www.dhs.pa.gov/Services/Mental-Health-In-PA/Pages/default.aspx