Parenting in Anxious Times (with Susan Stiffelman, MFT)

In these rapidly changing, unsettling times, as families are hunkering down and lives are put on hold, Janet is joined by author and therapist Susan Stiffelman to answer a parent’s concerns about discussing current events with her 4-year old. She describes her daughter as inquisitive, sensitive, and a child who tends to ask a lot of questions, and she wants to be as honest as possible without alarming her. “I want to use language that is appropriate and that she can understand, but also have it in the back of my mind she tends to be anxious and worry about things.”

Transcript of “Parenting in Anxious Times (with Susan Stiffelman, MFT)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m welcoming back a special guest, family therapist and parenting author, Susan Stiffelman, and she’s here to help me answer a question from a parent about talking to her child, who tends to be anxious, about the coronavirus and the changes their family’s going to have to make. I realize that the specifics of the situation for all of us are changing rapidly, but Susan and I hope to speak to the struggles parents are having and some strategies that they can use to address this difficult situation.

Hi there, friend.

Susan Stiffelman:  Hey, Janet. It’s so good to be here with you.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you so much for coming on to talk with me about this heavy stuff we have going on. I’ve got a note here and you were the first person I thought of to help me answer this parent’s concerns, which I imagine are the concerns of many parents out there. So thank you, Susan.

Here’s the note. This parent says:

I have an inquisitive, sensitive four-year-old daughter. With the recent coronavirus outbreaks around the world and US, I have remained informed but not shared this information with her. Unfortunately and very rapidly my home state has begun taking precautions due to infections in the area closing all K-12 schools. We are anticipating childcare to follow as licensed providers in several surrounding counties have been mandated to close. I work in childcare and she attends, so closure would drastically impact our daily live. Even without that, local museums, children’s programs, etc., in our area that we regularly frequent have announced closures due to an abundance of caution.

My question is: what is the best way for me to explain this information to a four year old? Of course, I want to use language that is appropriate and that she can understand. But I also have it in the back of my mind that she tends to be anxious and worry about things. Additionally, she asks tons of questions and I want to be able to field those appropriately. Thank you for any guidance you can provide.

Susan Stiffelman:  That’s such a great question and I think it’s universal right now, whether the child’s four or eight or 12. Our kids want to know what the heck is going on. The world is not the way it was yesterday and we’re not doing things the same way we were. So kudos to that parent to writing into you Janet.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes. And it sounds like she’s been able to keep the status quo for a while, but it seems like she’s noticing that there are some impending changes. I’ll try to get this out as soon as possible and at least we can help her to answer some of the questions and explain the situation to her. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Susan Stiffelman:  Yeah. Let’s start with the good news, which might surprise people. What’s the good news? It seems like all the news is worrisome. But the good news about a young child in this situation is that we have a lot of power or ability to quell their anxieties by regulating ourselves, and by managing our own fears and worries in an appropriate way with other adults, getting support in ways that help us, finding good sources of guidance online or within our communities and friendships.

So this four-year-old is not browsing the internet for information. They’re going to be primarily looking in one direction. That is to the mom who can first and foremost address her own concerns and fears.

So I always suggest that parents before talking with their children, have a conversation with a trusted friend or some support group that will help her address some of her greatest worries around the virus, and the upheaval and disruption in daily life that seems to be up ahead for so many of us, so that her four-year-old doesn’t pick up on that.

Because the other good news is that four-year-olds really are focused on mostly one thing, and that one thing is: am I going to be okay and is mommy or daddy or grandma going to be okay? They’re egocentric. And so the primary concern of this child is going to be about the immediate world that she lives in. And that’s easier, in one sense, to address by, first of all: holding a place, as you do begin the conversation or have these conversations, where you’re energetically reassuring — that there’s a place you have managed to land on where you’re not spinning in your head with all the what ifs, all the things that might happen.

I was doing something for parents earlier today to offer support. And one of the things that I reminded someone when they asked the question: “How are we going to get through this day after day after day, homeschooling and all these other things?”

And I said, “Well, remember in the 12 step programs, it’s one day at a time. And even though we have to plan for what this is going to look like, all we have to do is get through today.”

And so I think I would start with remembering that for ourselves and then being in a place when we begin the conversation (you and I can talk about what that might sound like), where we’re not subtly transmitting our own fears and worries because we’ve appropriately vented those with an adult that we trust.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes. That’s so important. Children are always taking their tone from us and we’re the first point of safety for them, and if we’re not there, then yeah, it is much harder for them to feel comfortable. So we would start with that. That’s a wonderful framing. Really important.

Susan Stiffelman:  And remember that this is a neutral event, even though it’s a disruptive event for a young child. There isn’t the same kind of cataloging of where does this rank in the realm of awful things? They watch us so carefully to decide how they should feel about something like this, something that happens that’s unexpected or difficult.

I’ve seen this with kids so many times, and I saw this when my own son was young, that we might be facing something that to me was sort of, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe we’re dealing with this.” And his focus was not on the situation but on me. Like to read me to see whether he should be worried or whether this was sort of a funny thing or even a good thing.

So again, holding a place, when she does begin to speak with her little girl, that allows her to communicate in the nonverbal part of the messaging: This is a change and this is different and there are things that we haven’t figured out yet, but I’m solid and we’ll get through this, and it’s just one day at a time.

So that’s kind of reiterating what I said before, but it’s important that we remember that we can strongly influence how our kids digest this information in the way that we come across.

Janet Lansbury:  Exactly. I’ve noticed that children always surprise me in their ability to be okay with very unusual or even tragic situations  when we are okay with it. We’re not happy about it, but they know, again, they’re looking to us. Are my parents going to be okay? That’s all I care about. That’s my world. And then they surprise us with their ability to understand things.

I would recommend being very honest and simple using frames of reference that our child has saying things like: “You know how we get colds and we get stuffy noses. Sometimes we get a fever and we have to lie down.  That comes from a virus and right now there’s a virus that’s new and for a lot of people it ends up feeling like a cold or the flu, but for some people it’s very dangerous. So we’re all being careful not to pass this around and we’re not going to have daycare for a while and we are going to keep our lives to ourselves a little more.” And things like that. I think children can understand that and even embrace it as: Okay, well, we’ll do this interesting new thing, again because my parent seems confident that it’s going to be all right.

Susan Stiffelman:  Yeah. I like using very concrete ways of describing situations to young kids who are in that concrete stage. So for instance, you could take out your puppets and show the puppets playing catch with a little balled up piece of tissue or you could just play catch and maybe a foot apart. And then get a little bit further apart, and then eventually go to the other end of the room and deliberately throw the tissue where it doesn’t reach. And help her understand that in a way the tissue represents the germs that carry this virus. And so if you’re really close and you throw the tissue back and forth, it’s not very hard to catch it.

If your child isn’t good at catching by the way, you can just sit on the floor and push it back and forth the way we used to play hot potato. But if you get really far on the other side of the room or one of you goes down the hall, then eventually you just can’t reach.

And you could sort of explain: “This tissue represents the germs that carry this bug, this virus, this flu that we’re really all working hard not to pass to each other. And if we’re close together, then it’s easier for it to pass from one friend to another friend. But if we’re far apart or we stay in our houses…” And you could even play the game where you go outside. One of you goes outside and closes the door, then you can obviously see that the tissue, the little germ can’t reach the other person. So anything that comes to mind that would allow you to make it visible and practical for the child to understand why this distancing is a really good idea can be helpful.

And of course we’re all talking about washing hands for 20 seconds, singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or two verses of Happy Birthday. And this can become a game. It can become something that you do where you’re being a little bit silly, maybe, so that you reinforce this habit of being a germ buster. Where you make it really hard for the germ to pass from one friend to another, and that’s the way everybody’s going to stay well.

Janet Lansbury:  I love that.

And then this parent, she’s anticipating that her daughter will have questions and she wants to make sure that she’s going to field those appropriately. That’s the wonderful thing about children. They let you know what’s on their mind and they ask the questions. We don’t have to assume that they’re worried about certain things. They will let us know… and may not even be worried about it, may just be: This is what I’m curious about. This is what I’m interested in and this is what I need to know to feel more on top of this situation for myself.

Susan Stiffelman:  I’m sitting here nodding my head vigorously.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s why I love working with younger children. They are so clear about that.

So I think this parent doesn’t have to worry. She’s going to get the questions. And if she can just kind of not jump ahead, again, with her own anxiety, fear that she’s going to say the wrong thing or her daughter’s going to be afraid of something, then I think she’ll find that her daughter will be more in learning mode than anxious mode.

Susan Stiffelman:  That’s a great way to put it, Janet. Less is more, so err on the side of being brief with any child, but particularly a young child. Answer the question that they’re asking, don’t elaborate. Don’t volunteer more information than they’ve really shown an interest in.

I love that you’ve talked about curiosity. The anxiety comes in for a couple of reasons. One, some children are just generally are naturally more sensitive and more anxious and or they pick up our anxiety about these things. So we don’t have to assume that she will be anxious. She might be. But we can assume and begin with the understanding that she’s going to need to know why you’re not going to daycare, why that facility is being closed while you’re all at home. But if you deliver information in a factual and simple, straightforward way and then ask if she’d like to know anything else and then answer the next question and let her guide.

Now the exception to this with some children that I’ve worked with is that, unintentionally, their parents have created a climate where the kids are very reluctant to ask the questions that are on their mind because they don’t want a few things to happen. One is that they don’t want their parent to dismiss their concerns out of hand. “Oh, don’t worry about it, nothing’s going to happen.”

Kids are too smart. They’re really tuned in. And so that can shut them down and prevent them from asking questions that they really should and need to ask to get things out in the open that they might be worried about and quietly ruminating about, if we haven’t made it safe for them to bring them out into the open. And of course, sometimes kids are shy about asking questions or bringing their concerns out into the open because they don’t want to upset a parent.

So if they’re feeling that you’re already worried, they may hold in their own worries because they sense that it would overwhelm you. They’re again, so tuned into us. So the biggest kind of overarching thing that I suggest to parents is that they really make it safe by creating an atmosphere of openness, of acceptance. Any question is allowed without pouncing on it with advice or worries or, “Oh, don’t worry about that or don’t think that” or magnifying their fears if they bring them in the open. This is what helps kids get through challenging situations. It’s not that we can control everything and make sure they never have to face anything that’s worrisome or scary, but it’s that we make it safe and possible for them to let us know what’s rattling them, what’s unsettling them so that we can help them through it.

Janet Lansbury:  That expression, “be strong for somebody.” I feel like through (nothing like this because I’ve never been through anything like this particular situation in my lifetime), but other difficult situations I’ve been in… Or when I had to talk to my children about uncomfortable things or when they were talking to me about uncomfortable things all through the years into their adulthood, I felt like I needed to rise into this heroic place in myself. And it felt really, really good to be this big person. Not a person that was ignoring that I have discomforts, but I was rising out of them out of deep love for my child.

And because I so treasured the sharing that was happening, and I knew how precious it was that they were sharing their concerns with me or their curiosities about uncomfortable things. And I knew that these conversations were so few and far between that I wouldn’t want to do anything to discourage them from happening as often as they could possibly happen.

So I think this is a place that we can go to for the sake of our child and it will feel very validating for us, and probably help us to feel better about situations ourselves as well, because we’re going to that place inside ourselves that is fearless or less fearful.

Susan Stiffelman:  Yeah, and this is one of the gifts that children bring to our lives: they propel us into a sturdier or deeper or finer version of ourselves. We have to kind of grow beyond what we think we can do.

And then of course there is the possibility here that the child will be anxious and we should be prepared for kids to have some signs of anxiety, whether it’s more clinginess, problems sleeping appetite changes, irritability or meltdowns. All of these things are going to be appropriate manifestations of a child who’s unsettled by the changes in their lives. Many kids are creatures of routine and habit.

So if her daughter does exhibit or express her anxiety to be okay with that. I love what you said about that fearlessness or less fearful where we can allow her to have that experience of being uncomfortable with the changes around her, or a little bit worried, without fueling them with our own.

And again, the good news is that when we hold a place… I call it the captain of the ship. But when we convey that kind of calm, confident energy, even when we don’t have all the pieces sorted out of how each day will look or what the implications will be for our lives going forward for a while, an anxious child will find comfort in that.

And then we can always do things like helping them color or draw a picture of what they’re feeling inside. If a child comes to you and says, “I’m really scared about this, I’m afraid grandma might get sick,” or whatever might worry them.

“Well, what color are you feeling? If your scary feelings had a color, what color would they be? And point to the part of your body where those feelings are moving around right now.” So that we help our kids embody the experience of all their feelings.

You and I have talked a lot about this, that humans have a wide repertoire of emotions and feelings and so we want to make them comfortable with that. So, if she’s feeling anxious to allow her to connect with that.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, that’s wonderful.

Susan Stiffelman:  And then to be able to move on. I do a lot of mindfulness practices with families with kids: “Can you put your hand on that part of your body that’s feeling a little butterfly-y or just a little nervous or a little icky? And let’s imagine that coming through your hand into that part of your tummy where you’re feeling those scary anxious feelings. You see this calm blue, warm light just bathing that scary part until it calms down and settles down. Like how we sometimes rock your little niece and we settle her down when she’s feeling a little unsettled or anxious.”

And we want to be sure to empower anxious children, or all children, with things that they can do to feel better when they’re feeling afraid. Of course there are practical things that can help them as well. “Okay, you’re going to be in charge of watering the plants or you’re going to be in charge of helping make a really pretty dinner table for us tonight.” That gives kids something that they can sort of grab hold of to channel some of that extra energy into.

Janet Lansbury:  Right, and feel some autonomy in the situation. Like an older child that has schoolwork to do could have some ideas about what they want to do first and their schedule of their day and other things. “Can you help me watch your sibling while I do this?” Giving them ways to feel like they have agency in their being autonomous in a situation. And that helps children feel more in control and comfortable.

Susan Stiffelman:  That’s such a good point, because part of what fuels fear is the sense of powerlessness. And I think all of us could agree that that’s probably why we’re having our own anxious moment, because there’s so much uncertainty, and human beings tend to like things to be predictable. What causes and feeds anxiety is that sense of helplessness and powerlessness in a situation. So like you said, any opportunity to put a child in charge of something or to give them a job or to help them be the one who teaches you something can allay some of their anxieties.

Janet Lansbury:  I love what you said about normalizing the feelings that your child is anxious, perhaps, and is sharing that with you. And really this is the situation that we have reason to feel anxious and it’s okay.

Susan Stiffelman:  Children are so adaptable and remarkably resilient when we have faith in their ability to kind of take a sharp left turn when one wasn’t expected.

And I actually am trying to reframe at least one small part of what we’re all going through as an opportunity for kids to discover, on the other side of this, that they can go through difficult things. I mean, this is the way that we’d grow resilient, and this is how we become resilient ourselves. We go through something we didn’t know we could go through. We find our way through it, as hard as it might be at times. And when we come out the other side, we are sturdier, we’re more confident. So there is the potential here, if we can take this gently and be kind to ourselves and to each other, that our kids will become more resilient as a result.

Janet Lansbury:  I feel like there’s a very good possibility that our children are going to look back, and maybe we will as well, at this time and feel how special it was and how much they learned and how much they gained from it — sharing a big experience with their family. And again, like you said, that we got through and look what we were able to do. And it does empower you. It makes you feel like you can do anything.

Susan Stiffelman:  I agree. I think that if we can hold onto that image and not get lost in this swirl of confusion and worry right now… And do our due diligence, be incredibly careful and conscientious, practice, social distancing, try and implement some degree of sanity in our daily lives and continuity and regularity and routine. But also hold a vision of coming through this stronger and sturdier and more connected, maybe more vulnerable and exposed, in a good way, with one another. I think it could be that there would be at least a few silver linings. Not that we would ever choose this, no, but we can help each other come through this and be all right.

Janet Lansbury:  I love what you started out with saying about one day at a time. For today we’re okay, and let’s end with that.

Susan Stiffelman:  Yeah, it’ll be all right. Thanks, Janet.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you so much. Susan.

For more support, Susan has been doing webinars, these free online get togethers. She did one last Monday. She’s going to be doing one this coming Monday, March 23rd, at 11:00 AM Pacific Time, and I will be joining her to answer your questions. So please do join us. I’ll be leaving the information in the transcript of this podcast: HERE

Please check out Susan’s other incredible resources, her books (HERE) and her podcast, Parenting Without Power Struggles.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

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