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Helping our children navigate the pandemic

A clinical psychologist who also happens to be an avid triathlete and mom provides some insight on how to help our kids during the coronaviris COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Alisa Kenny Bridgman is an avid runner and triathlete and the co-founder of an independent pediatric psychology clinic in Toronto. Former Triathlon Magazine Canada editor Suzanne Zelazo talked with Dr. Kenny Bridgman about how parents can help their children through the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

You can read Suzanne Zelazo’s full interview with Dr. Bridgman here.

Suzanne Zelazo: Are there best practices for parents to help them in managing their own anxiety?

Dr. Alisa Kenny Bridgman:  Yes, absolutely:

  1. As parents, we need to put the oxygen masks on ourselves before we can help our families. We have to dial up our own inner strength and tap into our coping mechanisms. These are different for different people, but it boils down to outlets: lean on your fellow parent friends when you can (we are all experiencing variations of the exact same existence), stick with your workouts (but don’t beat yourself up if you feel drained and can’t get out of bed…..speaking from recent experience here!), have frequent Zoom calls with your friends and family, remember it’s totally fine (and highly recommended) to socially distance from your family and breathe in a quiet spot when you can (this has been a lot of togetherness).
  2. Set realistic expectations. You do not need to Marie Kondo your house or clean out the linen cupboard when you’re barely keeping your head above water with life, work and homeschool.
  3. Managing our anxiety as adults right now is really hard as this is not perceived or imagined anxiety, it’s the real deal. This is when we need to work on our ability to tolerate uncertainty. The crux of anxiety treatment is learning to sit with feelings of discomfort without having an adverse emotional reaction. This involves a high level of mindfulness and mental control. Control what you can, put the things you can’t control on the top shelf of your brain, and tackle one thing at a time.

What can parents do to offload some of the stress children are picking up from the media and their surroundings?

A few important considerations here:

  1. Children should not be exposed to the news on a regular or constant basis. Children do not have the emotional maturity, cognitive capacity, or life experience to process imagery they see on the news in general, never mind now. They will obviously pick up on things through their friends and social media, but my recommendation is to turn off the things you can control (like CNN and CBC news in the background). I recommend this to parents too. Stay informed, but not at the expense of your own mental health. Check the news in the morning and again at the end of the day (but not too close to bed so that you can avoid an anxiety spike and subsequent lack of sleep and emotional drinking/eating late at night).
  2. Children’s knowledge of Covid and its global impact should be on a “need to know” basis. It’s important to be honest and use direct language with children, but parents should not over-share or spend vast amounts of time during the day talking about the virus. Conversations should be around updating them on changing city practices and mandates, their own personal responsibilities with regards to safety, and daily routines and practices at home.
  3. Children need to know that all they can control is their little corner of the world and be reassured that their family is observing government guidelines and doing their part. We are all doing this, so collectively as a society, we are all controlling what we can in a ripple effect. The rest is the rest and there is zero point worrying about things we cannot control or plan. When we worry in this way, it takes away the moments of joy and happiness we can all still experience in this exceptionally difficult time.
  4. It is important that parents keep “adult” conversations to themselves as much as possible (re: finances, job situation, etc.). These issues will impact the children and family life in time, but it will be important to compartmentalize these conversations to some degree and share pertinent information with children only when necessary and timely.
  5. “Parents’ moods are a child’s barometer.” Always remember that children have VERY big eyes and ears and will pick up on everything their parents are doing/saying. Parents will need to work extra hard to manage their own anxiety and fears so these aren’t projected onto their children.

Any tips on how to parent children in this time and manage their emotions and daily routines?

  1. Make sure children/teens understand that their own wellness is paramount to getting through this time. This involves taking care of their sleep, eating, and hygiene habits, exercising every day for at least 30 minutes, and reducing time on social media (some children need a social media diet-check their phone max 3x per day, phone goes to their parents every night at 9:00 pm or earlier). Think about wellness as the base of a triangle. The other things they have to do during the day (schoolwork, chores) will be much easier if the foundation of their daily lives is solid.
  2. Children thrive on structure, so creating a daily structure (albeit looser than school) is imperative. It can just be dividing the day into three parts (morning, after lunch, after dinner) with a few tasks in each part, but some sort of structure is key. Just be careful not to be too rigid and detailed in creating structure and routines, as this can backfire.
  3. Encourage your children to FaceTime friends and family members often. Children may want to do classwork in groups with their friends on FaceTime or Zoom and this helps keep social connections going.
  4. Ask your child’s teacher if there are any younger students or more vulnerable children at their school who would benefit from having a buddy during this time. FaceTiming a buddy (to read to, do an art project with, or help with homework) is a great way to enhance social interaction and provide a bigger purpose to their day.
  5. Older teens and young adults (who were living outside the home and at university and have been abruptly reverse-launched) will likely experience a phenomenon known as the “caged-tiger” effect. They will need high levels of daily empathy, support, and guidance in managing their new normal. Coming down hard on expectations and household requirements will absolutely boomerang on you and cause them to further retreat to their rooms.

Any parting words?

The human spirit is remarkably resilient. We have all been through adversity in our lives in some form or another. Try to remember what good has come out of these periods (further self-understanding, increased empathy and compassion for our neighbours, renewed appreciation of our people and the physical world around us).

My colleague said it best: “We must all put our heads down and bear this storm. Like bamboo, we can bend but we won’t break.”

Suzanne Zelazo is a coach with Team Atomica and holds a PhD in English Literature. She competed as a professional long course triathlete for six years.