The first few weeks of staying at home were likely all about trying to find a way to make everything work. The world and all of our routines were different and unfamiliar, but still a bit intriguing for children. There were new experiences like school on the computer, zoom meetings with classmates, parents at home. It was unfamiliar but not necessarily fearful.
Now the difference has become the new routine, but things are not as we would like them to be. The intrigue of the new has given way to the frustration of what we cannot do. We would rather be with people than see them on the computer screen. Parents are at home, but they are busy and stressed. At this point, children begin to grieve the familiar. This is the time when anxiety rears its ugly head.
While anxiety often shows itself in typical behaviors, it also hides behind other behaviors that might be misinterpreted. As you live and work at home, now is the time to consider the emotions behind their behaviors and respond with grace. By this I mean to respond with what your children need rather than what they might deserve.
Signs of Anxiety
When young children are seemingly glued to your leg, it is easy to recognize that this is a symptom of anxiety. However, if your children are short-tempered, defiant, more tired than usual, withdrawing and refusing to do their school work, or looking for distractions in all the wrong ways (i.e., being naughty or disruptive), these are also clues that they are trying to cope with anxiety. Additionally, if they are bothering you for small things or lacking the confidence to accomplish tasks that have been easy for them in the past, anxiety may also be the culprit.
The Why Behind the Behavior
Our brains are all about creating shortcuts. We love routines and anything predictable because with them the brain can simply summon up a script for what to do, say, or feel. When we are in a strange situation, we have to do more thinking, and that creates a burden on the brain. In addition, if there is a chronic worry, such as the impact of the virus, the brain must tackle extra work to cope. The behaviors that result from anxiety are simply signals from the brain that it is trying to catch up. In addition, when the news makes us stressed, or when we are around other family members who are stressed, our brains are getting a constant signal for the need for hyper vigilance . All of this creates a situation known as cognitive overload. When the brain is in this state – the world doesn’t make sense like it used to.
Schedule the Day
The best way to counteract anxiety is to create a new normal. Find a way to schedule the day as best you can so your children know better what to expect. A child can better handle time set aside to be free from interruption if you can assure them that it will be followed by time to be together. Set your schedule by alternating family chores, work time, story time, family game time, and quiet time for reflection such as journal writing or drawing.
If you are working from home, set your phone alarm to remind you to do a quick check-in with your children at several points throughout the day. You might find that periodically reaching out to them will reduce the number of interruptions.
The benefit of such a schedule is that you are teaching your children how to cope with anxiety in positive ways. Spending time together as well as spending time alone in reflection are both excellent ways to reduce stress. Don't feel bad about lowering your expectations on what will get done. Learning to cope is an important life lesson.
Share Your Faith
When you take moments out of the day to bring faith into your family routine, you are teaching your children how to tackle anxiety and the lesson that faith is a part of every aspect of our lives. How can faith help when we are afraid if we only use it on Sundays and in desperate prayers? Think about what repeatable faith activities might work best with your family:
Are you comfortable praying together? Even a short prayer such as “Dear Jesus, bring me peace. Amen” will remind your child of God’s care when anxiety rears its head.
Can you choose a Bible verse to memorize and repeat? Here a few of my favorites:
The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. Hebrews 13: 6
The LORD your God is with you, He is mighty to save. Zephaniah 3:17
May the Lord give strength to His people! May the Lord bless His people with peace! Psalm 29:11
A family motto can serve as a strong reminder of how God helps us to treat each other with love and understanding.
In this family, we show patience.
In this family, we forgive.
In this family, we help each other.
Each of these small moments of faith sharing will not only help to release some stress but will teach your children how faith is woven into our every day life.
During times of chronic stress, acts of grace shown toward each other are your most effective tool. It is not a time when you can ignore work that needs doing or the importance of family rules, but these things might need to take a second seat to sitting together, hugging each other, and practicing forgiveness. When children learn to cope with anxiety then they will be better able to learn other things. The world calls it “cutting each other some slack,” but in a faith-context, grace is so much more and does so much more. Grace teaches and nurtures. Grace is living God’s love. Grace heals.
Doubting Thomas and Fear
Disciple Thomas’ reaction to the news of Jesus’ resurrection is an excellent example of the wrong way to cope with anxiety (John 20). Thomas experienced great fear in watching the crowds go from shouting “hosanna” to “crucify him!”in a week's time. His brain likely barely comprehended Jesus’ death, and now his fear was impeding his faith and denying his acceptance of Christ's resurrection. Even when his friends told Him Jesus was alive, he could not accept it. He tried to take control of his fear and instead denied his faith.
Jesus’ response was to give Thomas what he needed. Thomas received no reprimand but instead was able to turn to his faith by touching the wounds of his Savior.
During times of great difficulty, we also have the opportunity to experience great learning. Pray, read God’s Word and experience your faith with your children. God is most willing to give you what you need.