Understanding Anxiety and Our Kids During COVID: the Takeaway!
On December 17, we held the first of our Special X Explorations parent series with Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D., founder and clinical director of CARE-LA, on understanding our anxieties during COVID. All of us, staff and participants alike, got so much out of our time with Dr. Stutman and each other. So much magic happens when a group of parents get together to talk through their fears; the experience was a powerful reminder of how little it really takes to support each other, and how important it is to be part of a community. We’d like to share some of what we learned with you here, in the hope that you can also benefit from our time together. And stay tuned — Dr. Stutman will be holding another Exploration with Special X parents very soon!
The “Worry Time” Exercise
As a practice, the “worry time” exercise works best if you can make time to spend 10–15 minutes writing, but we all know how hard it is to get even a few seconds of quiet time, so if you only have 5 minutes, that works too!
Begin by writing every single thing that worries you, both rational and irrational. Rational worries are things that could potentially happen; irrational worries are things that are improbable, but worry you nonetheless. For example, a rational worry could be: I’m terrified I’ll say the wrong thing at my child’s IEP. And then there’s an irrational worry: I’ll say the wrong thing at the IEP, and they’ll take all of my child’s services away and I’ll ruin his life. There is no shame or blame in having either worry or thought — it’s just important to note the difference.
The next step is to choose one rational worry and come up with one or two ways you feel you might be able to start taking control of it. In our group exercise, we broke into small groups so we could discuss these worries and possible ways to control them with other parents. It’s no surprise that many of us not only share the same fears, but have a lot of constructive feedback to offer each other in this kind of exchange. At home, sit with your rational worries and see what kinds of ideas you have for different ways to approach them. What kinds of changes could you make to gain more control in the situations that prompt these worries? Write down anything that comes to mind. Remember that it’s okay to have these fears, and that sometimes, merely accepting them takes away a little of the control they have over us. Next, crumple the paper holding your irrational thoughts; if you have a fireplace, it can be especially cathartic to throw the paper in and watch it turn to ash.
The last step is to create a vision statement that addresses what would happen if everything went right. Let’s keep our focus on what we can control: What do you see? How do things look, feel, smell, and taste? Imagine yourself in that good place and end with that feeling.
Many of the parents who participated in the December Exploration offered great suggestions for little steps we can take toward working on some of our anxieties, from the fear of not being enough for our kids to worrying about their lack of socialization. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Remember that you can count on yourself.
- Try redefining what success looks like.
- Try to adjust your expectations to fit and honor your kids’ experiences. Allow them a little more control over the uncontrollable.
- Make time to connect and have “special time” with your children. One parent told us, “I let my child lead and allow me to follow where they go. That helps us connect.”
- Rethink the virtual play date — in fact, rethink video games as a way for our kids to interact with each other from the safety of their own living rooms. One of our Special X parents, Michelle, told us about Spectrum Gaming, which is an online community where kids with autism of all ages can come together to play interactive video games. Thank you, Michelle! We are so excited about this idea!
- Make a sticker chart for your kids and for you! This wonderful suggestion comes from Special X parent Sandra, who says she got the idea for the chart from the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, by Dr. Laura Markham. Sandra tells us that while she finds she has infinite patience with her son with disabilities, she is less patient with her neurotypical son because she expects more from him, so she created this chart to help herself stay patient and accountable. He loved it, and it worked! Having a sticker chart for both parent and kid can help you keep each other in check; it’s also a great way to let your children feel more in control. Thank you, Sandra! We can’t wait to try this at home.
- Some parents had questions about helping their kids effectively perform breathing exercises, and Dr. Stutman recommended practicing breathing skills only when our children are calm. That way, they can “over-learn” it, Dr. Stutman explains, and “it will be more accessible to them when they are in fight or flight.” Dr. Stutman also recommends techniques like screaming into a pillow, taking a shower, biting into a lemon, doing the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, drawing, journaling, getting a hug, or being left alone to have some space. You can read more of Dr. Stutman’s tips for helping our kids with anxiety in her article for Special X!
- Remember to have hope for the future. Special X parent Shari told us about two communities, Camp Village Trust and the Els Joncs foundation, that give her greater peace of mind when she envisions her son’s future. “These communities give me hope for so many reasons,” Shari says. “My son deserves to live independently from his family. To enjoy his own life, within his own community. One which will enable him to ... learn, grow, and thrive. Ideally, it will also be where the people who build it and work there may live and raise their families.” Thank you, Shari! Maybe it’s time to start thinking about creating one of these communities ourselves . . .
We are so grateful to all the parents who participated in the event with us last month, and very much look forward to connecting with our community members again. Until then, be gentle with yourselves and carry on when you can with joy (and a least a little chutzpah).